An Interfaith Conversation with Thailand’s First Theravada Female Monk: Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni

Nakhon Pathom, Thailand

Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni in the monastery’s art gallery. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography

Biography:

Venerable Dhammananda (Luang Mae) — Mother Abbess, as she is respectfully known to her community, was the first Thai woman to be ordained as a female monastic in the conservative Theravada Buddhist tradition. Better known in the world of academics as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Ven. Dhammananda enjoyed a successful career spanning nearly three decades. She is a former professor of religion and philosophy at Bangkok’s prestigious Thammasat University, hosted her own TV Show, was married and had three sons of her own. She left all her worldly pursuits to embark on a spiritual path and followed the footsteps of her mother (Ven. Voromai Kabilsingh) — who was ordained in the Mahayana tradition in Taiwan, to continue the lineage of ordained women. Since the Bhikkhuni lineage died out in Thailand over 700 years ago and she could not get the approval of Thailand’s top Buddhist authorities, Ven. Dhammananda hacked the system and went to Sri Lanka to be ordained: first as a novice in 2001 and finally as a Bhikkhuni in 2003.

Today, Ven. Dhammananda is the Abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the only all-female monastery and education center in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand — its name translated as “the temple of women who uphold the Dharma”. Now into her seventies (though she looks many decades younger), Ven. Dhammananda remains a tireless fighter for spiritual equality. She hopes to establish the bhikkhuni sangha in Thailand and carry out the mission that Buddha established himself during the time he walked the earth.

“Potentially, all of us have that seed of enlightenment. But you have to nurture this potentiality and let it grow…”

Venerable Dhammananda explained to me, during my much-anticipated visit to the only all-female monastery (Songdhammakalyani Monastery) in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, 53 km west of Bangkok. Enlightenment is available to everyone, not just Buddhists or the ordained monastics. She goes on to say that, “We have to nurture our potentiality so that we can be free from suffering, which is caused by your own clinging.”

A fellow Sister, using power tools to fix the monastery’s fence! This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography

A few weeks before my trip to Thailand, I discovered Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni on YouTube, and learned about her radical story on the fight to reestablish the ordination of women (as it was done in Buddha’s time) in Thailand. Through her compelling TED Talk and the Huffington Post documentary created by the Zainab Salbi Project, I felt an intense connection to Ven. Dhammananda’s feminist approach on modern Buddhist philosophy and knew that I couldn’t leave Thailand without visiting this unique space and also meeting her in person.

“It is very valuable for women to change society, starting from the family. We can bring about a lot of notion to change the world.” (on being a “change agent” in our broken world today)

[author’s note: Ven. Dhammananda’s words above reminds me of this quote by St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta: ““If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.”]

Temple of the Medicine Buddha at Songdhammakalyani Monastery. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography
Interfaith dialogue always amazes me. In our ever-changing world that is often paralyzed by fear, getting to know humans from all walks of life is crucial if we want to confront stereotypes and learn from our differences. As a Catholic who has long appreciated the role of women as spiritual leaders, and values the practice of mindfulness found in Buddhist philosophy, it was a real honor to meet with Ven. Dhammananda and tap into her wealth of knowledge on topics of the Buddhist view of Jesus, to female ordination in Thailand, socially engaged Buddhism, a Vatican invitation and meditation tips.

It is easy to witness the love and respect that her community has for their beloved Luang Mae (“Mother Abbess” in Thai). The atmosphere at the temple is friendly and caring, and I’m greeted with constant smiles and exclamations of “Sadhu!” which is a Buddhist expression of happiness/approval in the ancient Pali language. Though it was a busy day at the monastery with her family visiting, Luang Mae Dhammananda agreed to sit down for an interfaith conversation with me. Here are her insightful responses to my questions!

The Buddha and the enlightened Bhikkhuni lineage. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography

Q: What is the Buddhist view on Jesus and the Virgin Mary?

To most of the Thai (Buddhists), they would consider Jesus like a bodhisattva, which is Savior, a good person. They don’t know much about (the Virgin) Mary (Maria). For Thai people, they generally know that Jesus is a good person, because he cares for others and he died on the cross. He sacrificed himself, that’s how they would understand.

If you go through the Gospels, the teachings of Jesus is very similar to Buddhist teaching. So just recently, someone was saying that when Jesus disappeared (no record of his earthy life from the time he was teaching in the synagogue to the start of his ministry at the age of 30), they suggested that he went to India and received ordination as a Buddhist monk! Someone wanted me to confirm if it’s true or not. I could say that in the Gospels, the teachings of Jesus Christ is very similar to Buddhist teaching. Literally no contradiction at all.

When you read through the Gospels, whether it’s Matthew, Luke or Mark or John, you like this personality, you like Jesus! He is very kind and gentle. From the feminist point of view, these are the points that we study. Jesus is an interesting personality, a good personality.

Venerable Dhammananda during our interview. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography

Q: On Buddhism, Feminism and the Ordination of Women in Buddhism.

In Thailand, for the last 700 years, women never had an opportunity to become ordained. Buddhism in Thailand has been preached from a patriarchal, male perspective all these years and there’s a big gap in gender equality. There are some feminists in Thailand who are very vocal, but do not want anything to do with Buddhism because of the way that it has been taught in this country.

We have a lot of people, everyone from commoners to women with PhD degrees, come for temporary ordination. It has become very popular now. This lasts for 9 days and participants have to shave their heads. They also stay with us, participate in chanting, daily work and the collecting of alms. If you are coming from outside of Buddhism, we ask that you first become a Buddhist for 4 months before taking refuge in the Buddha and in our community.

There are currently 270 fully ordained Bhikkhuni in Thailand right now. We have to not only nurture our own Sangha, but also the Sangha of other Bhikkhuni communities. I never thought it would happen in my life time, but now that we have become “change agents”, whoever comes in touch with us, they will go out also as change agents.

Through our programs in the temple, we take steps to encourage women to grow and develop their potential. If we do the right thing, we would bring women forward and women can really become strength. If they can be your mother, they should be able to do many things!

[author’s note: it is my understanding that temporary ordination is a spiritual reset for anyone who wishes to deepen their faith in Buddhism and helps them re-enter the world as a more balanced person.]

The establishment of an “eco-center” on the monastery grounds. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography

Q: On Socially Engaged Buddhism.

From the very beginning, the Buddha said, “Be beneficial to yourself and to others.” He didn’t say “Be beneficial to yourself, full stop.” You must also care for others. It is unthinkable that you don’t care for them, because they feed you. We go out for alms, with the bowl, and the village people care to cook food for us to eat, so we also have to care for them. It has to go both sides, two way traffic.

We are also developing an eco-center on our monastery grounds, where the society (schools and other temples — if they want) can come to learn how to reuse and recycle. After you’ve had your lunch, the food peels go back to the soil. Plastic returns and all paper returns to the recycling bin. We sell them by kilos and we try to recycle everything. This is all women’s work and very much focused on women energy. When we can change the mentality of the mother, who buys things for the kitchen. She is a very important person as a change agent. If you can change the mentality of the woman in the family, we can also help — not just society, but help the world, ecologically.

Q: A Papal Invitation to participate in a dialogue with Buddhist and Christian Nuns at Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Taiwan

I consider it my duty to travel and participate in these conferences. If I am invited, I will go. The latest is an invitation from a Vatican (nuncio), who asked me to participate in a dialogue between Buddhist and Christian nuns. The topic is “Contemplative Action and Active Contemplation“, so that we are not simply sitting quietly for ourselves but that we have to also care for society outside. And so, I will come so that we can learn from each other. When you have the right ideas, you can move forward in the right direction.

My favorite quote from Venerable Dhammananda’s meditation wall. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography

And finally… Ven. Dhammananda’s tips on meditation!

Q: Just curious about your tips on meditation. Any techniques that still the “monkey mind”? What is a good morning routine?

When the mind is not trained, it is like a monkey. We have a lot of energy, but that energy is scattered and you could not focus. Meditation helps you focus. Once you are focused, you will settle and it is like water when it is clear. Then you can see things down. Same with our wisdom. You are planning something, but the mind is so cloudy. You can plan but cannot see through — how can you bring about this? It is important for any profession, that you must have clear mind in order for you to be productive. It is important, not only for enlightenment, but for our day to day life.

When you get up in the morning, before getting out of bed, open your eyes and say, “Oh. I am alive. I am thankful.” You are humble, that we are allowed one more day. With that clear mind (of gratitude), you make a determination that today, I will focus my mind, my speech and my actions wholesomely. Towards the end of the day, as you lie down to go to sleep, you have a self-evaluation (of what happened throughout the day) if you slipped out and made mistakes, here and there. Tomorrow, I will go to that person to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you in that way.” This is a kind of self-evaluation that goes on every day. Then, the following day, you start again and you train yourself to be a better person.

To say that you are grateful to be alive today — that’s a big message. Because we always take it for granted. But then we see cases of people who died during their sleep, they never knew that they would die tonight. We must always be humble and grateful for what we have. It’s an important ethical practice.

[author’s note: the reflection on the day’s events reminds me of The Examen, which was adapted from St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. A great way to start and end the day with gratitude and self-reflection.]

Who said Buddhist monks are not expressive? This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography

It was an extreme honor to be in the presence of Ven. Dhammananda and interview her on a variety of topics. It was also amazing to catch a glimpse of this “rare form” of controversial monastic life in the Kingdom of Thailand. I found our conversation to be very informative, educational and also inspirational to my own life and career pursuits. Venerable’s dazzling smile, great sense of humor and natural ease at handling any kind of question kept me fully present during our interview together. Later that day, I left Songdhammakalyani Monastery feeling empowered and look forward to my next visit there, where I will hopefully be able to stay longer and witness the other spiritual practices of the monastery, such as the chanting, alms round and the Sunday Dharma talks.

  • IMPORTANT FACT: The Bhikkhunis have not been recognized by the Thai government, which means they do not receive any public funding. There are many ways to donate and support the temple’s activities from abroad, as well as schedule a visit to this unique space. Please see the info below.
Changing the relationship with beauty to mean something much deeper. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography

For more information:

Songdhammakalyani Monastery, 195 Petkasem Highway, Muang District,
Nakhonpathom, Thailand 73000. Tel : +66 34 258 270 (front desk).
Front desk opening hours (phone calls / visitors): 8.30am-5pm

Average Uber/Private Driver one-way fare from Central Bangkok: ฿ 700 (during rush hour), ฿500 (non-rush hour)

Pro-Tip: Sometimes, the driver will agree to wait for you as ubers and taxis are hard to get from the monastery back to Bangkok. If you are going for a few hours, this is ideal. Try to negotiate a rate with the driver if that is the case and have one of the Sisters communicate with him about the time and schedule.

Social Media:

Ven. Dhammananda on YouTube // Thai Bhikkhunis on Facebook

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A statue of Ven. Voromai Kabilsingh, Dhammananda’s mother — a journalist and monastic who started the temple in 1960. With much thanks and gratitude to you. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photo credit: Laurentina Photography