by Dr Lai Suat Yan
This article is written by Dr Lai Suat Yan in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.
Thailand – Venerable Dhammananda, (1943 – )
The Pioneering Bhikkhuni and Her Faith in the Buddha
Many understood Ven. Dhammananda’s aspiration and action to be ordained as a bhikkhuni (female monk) in the Theravada tradition as brave or courageous since the religious authority and government do not officially sanction it. In fact, there is a law that penalizes monks who give ordination to women as samaneri (novice) to full ordination as bhikkhuni in Thailand. Furthermore, in Thai history, women have also been jailed for refusing to disrobe after being ordained. As Ven. Dhammananda’s mother, Voramai Kabilsingh, ordained in the Mahayana tradition, she observed first hand that while her mother had supporters, none followed her footsteps to be a female monastic. This is because mainstream Thailand identifies with Theravada Buddhism. Therefore, when the time came for her to renounce her lay life, she decided to seek ordination in the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka first as a samaneri in 2001 and later as a bhikkhuni in 2003. Specifically, Ven. Dhammananda chose to be ordained under the Syamvamsa lineage that was established by Thai bhikkhus there. While her supporters greeted her with joy upon her ordination, she also received a fair share of criticism from her detractors. Yet, she remained undeterred and emphasized that her faith in the Buddha has enabled her to follow the path of renunciation as a female monastic. She would have completed 12 vassa (rain retreat) by end of 2014 at 71 years old.
Prior to her ordination, she was married with three grown-up sons and was a former Associate Professor, with the lay name, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, at Thammasat University. She received her B.A. with Honours in Philosophy from India and her M.A. in Religion from McMaster University, Canada. Her doctoral thesis was on “A Comparative Study of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha” and she has published numerous works in Thai and English, including Thai Woman in Buddhism.
As the daughter of a former journalist and later a female Mahayana monastic and a politician father, Kokiat Shatsena, who was a Member of Parliament and later a Theravada monk, her education, upbringing and exposure has enabled her to skillfully manage the press and the authority, religious or otherwise.
From only one female Theravada Buddhist monastic in the early 2000s, there are now altogether around 100 female monastics in Thailand. From her base at the Songdhammakalyani Kalyani monastery in the province of Nakhonpathum, where Ven. Dhammananda is abbess, female monastics can now be found in many provinces in Thailand, for example, in Chiang Mai, Yasodhorn, Rayong, Uthai Thani and Songkhla. The Monastery also acts as the coordinating center of the Network of Thai Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha formed in 2013. Ven. Dhammananda’s greatest gift to the Thai people, particularly women, is her unwavering faith in the Buddha’s founding of the female monastic order that she found a way for the female monastic order to take root and blossom in Thailand.
Educating the Public on the Bhikkhuni Lineage and Heritage in Buddhism
Significantly, Ven. Dhammananda incorporates knowledge of the Bhikkhuni lineage in the program at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery. She addresses the arguments that detractors in Thailand deploy to delegitimize bhikkhuni ordination. In response to doubts cast on the bhikkhuni lineage in Sri Lanka that bhikkhuni Sanghamitta Theri established, she refers to sources, that documents their existences, namely, Dipavamsa, a fourth century Sri Lankan chronicle, and archaeological findings. In addition, she also referred to materials that went as far as to show that the Chinese invited Sri Lankan bhikkhunis to establish the female monastic order in China around the 4th-5th centuries. Furthermore, she pointed out that the recorders of the Buddhist texts are monks who, coloured by their own worldviews, could have rendered invisible bhikkhunis and highlight accounts that are more favorable to monks.
Ven. Dhammananda educates the public on the bhikkhuni lineage in Buddhism in many forms, for example, giving talks, having discussions or publishing accessible booklets. Distinctively, the practices at Songdhammakalyani itself illustrate the rich heritage of the bhikkhuni lineage that women are bestowed with. Only at this monastery in Thailand that most, if not all, would have experienced the chant of the “Thirteen Arahat Theris” that signifies respect and a celebration of the spiritual attainment of the thirteen foremost bhikkhunis and the “Gotami Sutta” that portrays the determination of Mahapajati Gotami’s, the first bhikkhuni’s, quest for ordination. In addition, she organized educational tour to Wat Thepthidaram to pay respect to the 52 statues of bhikkhunis with Mahapajapati in the lead.
Since 2009, Thai women themselves have the opportunity to personally experience what it is like to live the ordained life through the temporary samaneri ordination organized. It is held twice annually at the Songdhammakalayani Monastery on April 6 to honour Ven. Dhammananda’s mother who founded the monastery and on December 5th to commemorate the reigning King’s birthday with the merits dedicated to him.
Samaneri Ordination 2009, courtesy of Songdhammakalyani Temple
Ven. Dhammananda skillfully organized the temporary ordination to reflect the monastery respect for the three main pillars of Thailand, namely, the nation, Buddhism and the monarchy with the procession of the Thai and Buddhist flags as well as a photo of His Majesty, the King during the dedication of merit session. This subverts the perception that any may have that samaneri ordination is an act of disrespect towards any of the three main pillars. In total, Ven. Dhammananda has ordained around 280 females as temporary samaneri not only at her monastery but also in other provinces, that is, Payao and Songhla.
Significantly, the temporary ordination provides many women with the chance to show their gratitude to their parents by dedicating the merits to them. Prior to this, only sons are able to do that. The temporary ordination further popularized the idea and acceptance of ordination for women as besides the presence of family members, relatives, and friends of the novitiate, the media will also be there. Her temple also produces Yasodhara, a newsletter that provides information on global Buddhist women’s activities with a specific focus on Thailand.
Ven. Dhammanda’s contribution to the dharma has won her accolades and recognition nationally and internationally. In 2012, the Ashwagosh Foundation in Nagpur, India awarded her the Sakyamuni International Award for her work globally to spread Buddhism. The United Nations selected her as one of the fifteen Buddhist women recipients from world-wide to receive the “Outstanding Buddhist Women Award” in 2004. She has been on the list of individuals honoured by two Thai English newspapers, namely, Bangkok Post, on its fiftieth anniversary and the Nation in conjunction with its thirtieth anniversary. The Prestige magazine conferred upon her the Woman of the Year Award in 2007 for her contribution to the understanding of Buddhist principles and Eastern Philosophy. She also received the Surindraraja Outstanding Translator’s Award in 2012 for her translation of over 30 books from English to Thai with the most well-known being the Saddharmapundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) and Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of The Dalai Lama.
She was on the screening committee of Japan’s Niwano Peace Award from 2003-2006 and was a past President of Sakyaditha, International Association of Buddhist Women. She is also one of the Spiritual Advisors of Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia.
Socially Engaged Buddhism
As a socially engaged Buddhist and a member of the Asian Theravada Bhikkhuni Association, Ven. Dhammananda has provided training on the Dhamma Vinaya to strengthen the Indian bhikkhuni in 2013. She also worked closely with the International Network of Engaged Buddhist (INEB) to support the growth of Buddhism in India and has provided bursaries to the Youth Buddhist Society, in Sankissa, India to come to the Sondghammakalyani Bhikkhuni Arama to further enhance their spiritual capabilities. In addition, she facilitated and assisted in the full ordination of ten monks from Sankissa in Thailand. Reflecting her commitment to socially engaged Buddhism, she is a member of the Advisory Board of INEB.
Most notably, the bhikkhunis at Songdhammakalyani has started to spread the dhamma to female inmates in prison since 2011. Initially, it started with donation of the surplus of sanitary napkins and expanded to other basic toiletries such as shampoo, soap and toothbrush. After working with the inmates for a while the bhikkhunis found that the most effective way was to focus on a message each visit, with time for meditation, questions and answers followed with the sharing of skills of head, hand and foot massage.
Two of the inmates, upon being released, attended a seven-day retreat at the Sondghammakalyani temple, while another joined the temporary ordination. Her work on socially engaged Buddhism is not limited to these two areas as she had also been invited for inter-faith dialogue with the Muslims in Thailand and incorporates environmental concerns in the program of the temple, for example, a recycling project and spreading the dhamma to preserve the environment.
Dr Lai Suat Yan
Vice-President Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia, and
Asian Public Intellectual (API) Fellow Year 13 (2013/14).
Some of the materials of the write-up are collected during the API Fellow Grant
 For details see Members of the Seeds of Peace staff, “Feel the Beauty of the Lotus: An Interview with Dhammananda,” Yasodhara, Vol 17/3, 2001.
 For more details on this and the activities of the Songdhammakalyani Temple, see Yasodhara Vol. 29/1, No. 113, October –December 2012.
 For details of the discussions and arguments see Lai Suat Yan, Engendering Buddhism: Female Ordination and Women’s ‘Voices’ in Thailand.” PhD dissertation, Claremont Graduate University, USA, 2011.
 For further details of temporary ordination see Thakur, “Winter Temporary Ordination,” Yasodhara, Vol 30/2, No. 114, October-December 2013.
 For details see, “Training Program for All Indian Bhikkhuni Sangha,” Yasodhara, Vol 31/1, No. 117, October-December 2013.
 For details see, “Developing Spiritual Leadership of Buddhist Youth in India,” Yasodhara, Vol 30/2, No. 114, January-March 2013.
 For details see, “Ordination of the Sakyas in Thailand,” Yasodhara, Vol 31/1, No. 117, October-December 2013.
 For more details on this aspect, see Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, “Engaged Buddhism: Bhikkhunis’ Work with Inmates in Prison,” Yasodhara, Vol 31/1, No. 117, October-December 2013.