Text and photos by Hilary Cadigan
Ouyporn Khuankaew's life began as many do here in northern Thailand, in a poor rice-farming family of devout Buddhists. But despite the regular temple visits and dutiful merit-making, Ouyporn's father was a violent man who regularly beat his family, even threatening them with an axe in the middle of the night. No one in the close-knit neighbourhood ever stepped in to help, and the monks and abbots from the local temples never said a thing. Ouyporn's mother accepted the beatings as her karma.
Today, in her late 40s, Ouyporn is still a Buddhist. But now, she's also one of Thailand's most outspoken feminist activists. Her work has spanned decades and continents, but her current focus is on training Thais in the government sector on gender-based violence, which is actually on the rise here in Thailand.
"We're a Buddhist country with a culture of violence," she tells me.
Indeed, Thailand ranks second in the world for rates of domestic violence, and a recent study by the UN revealed that over 60 percent of the Thai population believe it's okay for a man to beat his wife.
Ouyporn's retreats and trainings are designed to change this attitude, and are grounded in three basic principles: feminism, social activism and spiritual practice. At the International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice centre in Mae Rim, Ouyporn and co-founder Ginger Norwood blend meditation, yoga and breathwork with workshops focused on deep listening, nonviolent empowerment, unlearning internalised patriarchy, and understanding structural violence.
"In Thailand, there's never been any systematic anti-oppression training before," says Ouyporn, who today receives government funding and has trained nearly 2,000 people, men and women alike. "The world needs feminist work badly, here and everywhere. Patriarchy destroys men too. In Thai culture, there's no place for them to express 'unmasculine' emotions. Sometimes men in my workshops are able to cry for the first time in years."
We are sitting together on the spacious balcony of the adobe house Ouyporn built herself, looking out over the softly swaying paddy fields. In the distance is a temple, tall and gleaming gold in the mid-morning sun. Ouyporn sighs, and her bright-eyed, girlish face clouds over for a brief moment.
"Buddhism is collapsing," she says. "It's the main religion of Thailand but it's become so separate from the rest of life that it's not even functional."
She gestures at the temple, its gold dome rising like some kind of futuristic spaceship over the treetops. "It's about building buildings and collecting merit, rather than finding spiritual freedom. Here in Thailand, there are temples in every village and yet we have the most prostitution and alcoholism of anywhere. The Buddha taught ethical conduct, sharing, simplicity. Now, only our material development is increasing, while our ethical and spiritual development is decreasing."
Indeed, as a religion based on eschewing wanting and craving (per the second Noble Truth), it is rather interesting that Thailand's cultural interpretation of Theravada Buddhism has become so focused on accumulation.
"Doing good karma or making merits' is like depositing money in a bank," said famous Thai monk Ajarn Suchart Abhijato, in a dhamma talk that's now online. "The more we deposit the more money we will have accumulated. The interest will also increase and soon we will be rich."
Of course, merit is gained by giving, but when the sole focus of giving is to get, doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose?
One day I was walking down the street in Bangkok and saw a young Thai woman and her baby, dressed in rags and sitting on a dirty street corner in the middle of the morning market. The woman held out an empty dish for coins, but people stepped over and around her without casting a glance as they passed. Then two monks walked by, looking quite well-fed with their pristine saffron robes, silver alms bowls nearly full. Immediately, another woman crouched down before the two monks, offering them a bag of groceries and a wai. The monks accepted the food, gave their requisite blessings, and everyone went on their merry way. About a metre away, the beggar and her baby remained, watching silently, their dish still empty.
Thailand regularly claims that 95 percent of its 67 million citizens are practicing Buddhists, which, if true, makes Thailand the most Buddhist country in the world, at least on paper. But as Ouyporn points out, "We are living the Buddhist culture, not the Buddhist teaching."
It is this culture that sees the vast majority of young Thai man ordained in their early 20s in order to make merit for their parents. (Meanwhile, as Buddhist scholar David Loy points out, women, barred from ordination, must pay back their parents in other ways: namely domestic labour or cold hard cash, which is one reason for Thailand's sky high numbers of sex workers.)
So, while some men may enter the monastery in order to commit to Buddhist teachings, act as spiritual guides, and reach enlightenment, most are doing it simply because it's what's expected of them. As a result, commitment levels are often suspect.
"It is very common in rural areas, particularly in the north, to see monks disrobe after years of comfortable living at the expense of community and monastic resources, and to then go on to get married almost immediately," notes Ouyporn in an essay. But, she adds, rural villagers are tolerant because they need monks to perform Buddhist ceremonies.
And why are these ceremonies so important? Perhaps it all goes back to the idea of saving face. In this case, the face is Thailand's, and what must be saved is its reputation as a devoutly Buddhist nation.
Of course, this kind of monastic impunity also leads to larger scandals, including the jet-setting monk debacle of 2013. More recently, a monk in Ang Thong was arrested for operating a lewd website featuring nonconsensual video footage of women using the toilet. Just a few days prior, five more monks were apprehended for operating a sex ring dedicated to raping young boys.
To anyone familiar with the Catholic Church scandals of recent years, incidents like these sound eerily familiar, and they are. But what's particularly disturbing here is the lack of reflection that comes from other Thai Buddhists in power, and the radio silence from the Thai sangha. Rather than attempting to clean up institutional corruption or place more regulations upon monks, Thailand seems primarily concerned with sweeping such incidents under the rug as quickly as possible.
"The sangha is failing," says Ouyporn. "There's no one progressive at the top, no grassroots movements within. Just a lot of old men set in their ways. Monks don't teach anything, they're just chanting and nobody knows what they're saying. Religion has become ceremonial, not embodied as a way of life. You just go and do it because you're supposed to."
Killing in the Name Of
Like many (most?) religions, it is the insidious combination of fundamentalism and patriarchy that has caused a religion based on morality, mindfulness and compassion to be used in defense of bigotry and hate-mongering. And even though Buddhism is often praised for its nonviolent teachings, that hasn't stopped people from shedding blood in its name. Just look at what's going on now in Burma.
"Killing Muslims isn't Buddhist, it's patriarchy," says Ouyporn, and this is perhaps the crux of her entire philosophy. She takes issue not with the original teachings of the Buddha himself, but rather with the way Buddhism has come to be interpreted – and manipulated – as an instrument of social control.
And indeed, the concept of karma, which Ouyporn says has little to do with the Buddha's original teachings, has become the perfect tool for those in power to marginalise and subjugate everyone else. David Loy calls this "a social trap" based on the idea that "one's present life situation, whether good or bad, enjoyable or painful, is a consequence of one's moral behaviour in previous lifetimes."
In Thailand, where women are barred from being ordained, the general belief is that being born a woman is the result of bad karma from a previous life. The same goes for those who are disabled, sick or LGBT: bad karma, no ordination.
"The male Thai sangha benefits enormously from this understanding, or misunderstanding, of Buddhist teachings about karma and rebirth," writes Loy. For those marginalised, "the responsibility for their own abuse is really in their own hands, not in the powerful men and patriarchal social structures that seem to exploit them. It is a classic case of 'blame the victim,' protecting the perpetrators and wrapping the structures of exploitation in invisibility and inevitability."
In other words, everything bad that happens to you is your fault, but you can't remember it so there's nothing you can do, except pay us.
A Brief Historical Interlude
The role of women in Theravada Buddhism is historically quite murky. Back when the Buddha was alive, over 2,500 years ago, women already held a very low place in society, little more than submissive servants to the wants and needs of their husbands. It is said that the Buddha himself, wrapped up in the ethos of his time, initially excluded women from being ordained. It was his closest disciple, Ananda, who eventually convinced him to provide a space for women within the monastic order – a very revolutionary act for the time. The first bhikkhuni Buddha ordained was his own stepmother, and the line was said to have flourished from there.
However, according to Pali scriptures, the Buddha tempered his equanimity with eight additional rules making nuns forever subordinate to monks, and told Ananda that his teachings, which would have lasted over a thousand years, would only last five hundred years because of the ordination of women.
At least, this is what was written down in Pali scriptures. But scholars note that we can't really be sure that the Buddha himself actually made these rules, as they weren't recorded until over four centuries after his death. And guess who wrote them down? Men, of course.
Unfortunately, the last of the Theravada bhikkhuni line was wiped out entirely in the 11th century, when Sri Lanka was conquered by the Colas of southern India, who destroyed all the monasteries and killed the monks and nuns. While Buddhism was restored by monks recruited from Burma, the bhikkhuni line was lost forever, thanks to monastic rules obtusely requiring the presence of ten bhikkhunis to ordain a new one.
And so it went, until in 1928 the daughters of a radical monk in Thailand tried to be ordained as bhikkhunis. When Supreme Patriarch Prince Chinnawon Siriwat found out, the women were forcibly disrobed and imprisoned, and an official law was passed outlawing the practice throughout Thailand. Prince Chinnaworn added that any Thai monk who ordained a female "is said to conduct what the Buddha has not prescribed, to revoke what the Buddha has laid down, and to be an enemy of the holy religion."
The Women in White
Because Buddhist nuns are not recognised by the Thai sangha, the only approved option for a woman who wishes to dedicate her life to Buddhism is to become a mae chi. As a mae chi, a woman can shave her head, wear white robes and live in a temple, but no matter how long she stays or how enlightened she becomes, she will always be considered lower than even novice monks, simply because she is a women.
Mae chi are often incorrectly referred to as nuns since there's no English word to describe their nebulous place in Thai society. They can take only eight precepts and receive no ordination, no free education, no legal status, no recognition from the sangha, and no standing in Thai society, leaving them as little more than temple housekeepers, at the mercy of the monks and even vulnerable to abuse within the temple (but remember, that's karma).
In her 2013 documentary, White Robes, Saffron Dreams, filmmaker Teena Amrit Gill explored this disparity in depth. "As I worked on this film, I felt that the more this whole attitude toward women is projected by Buddhism, the more misogyny exists in society," Gill told me. "If you use religion as your argument, you leave no room for discussion."
Meeting a Mae Chi
"Are you hungry? Can I make you some lunch?" The tiny, bespectacled woman before me wears white robes and glasses, her grey hair and eyebrows shaven. She lives in a leafy compound full of cats tucked in the back of one of Chiang Mai's temples. She asks that I keep her name and location anonymous, so I'll call her Som.
Som became a mae chi two decades ago. She says she encountered great suffering, but declines to go into detail. All she will reveal is that it was bad enough that she considered suicide, but turned to the temple instead and hasn't looked back since. Today she lives quietly, caring for her elderly mother who lives with her and trying to find the time to meditate on the side.
She is allowed to go out and take alms but says she receives far less than monks do, so she's usually just scraping by. But overall, she enjoys her simple life, because it has allowed her to escape the increasingly materialistic influences of modern life in Thailand.
"I'm sad for Thai society," she tells me. "People are suffering."
Som is interested in returning to the roots of Buddhism, and is not afraid of questioning her faith or critiquing Thai society. After all, she notes, it was the Buddha himself who implored his followers to be flexible, to question beliefs and to change rules that no longer apply.
"Most Thai people know traditional Buddhism," she says. "They know the heritage of the past thousands of years so they don't question it at all. This is the weak point of Thai Buddhism. We don't pay attention, instead we just follow blind faith."
As we sit chatting, I am impressed by Som's progressive views on life and religion, which is why her next statement surprises me. When I ask her if she finds her lack of recognition from the sangha unfair, she shrugs. "I accept my position and my situation," she says mildly. "It's good enough for me."
Perhaps Som's contentment with her role is a testimony to her own ability to reach the Buddhist ideal of "no self," a state of no desire at all, and if so I applaud her. But at the same time, I couldn't help but recall Ouyporn's stories about the role-play activities she used to do at her workshops with exiled nuns in Nepal, in which they practiced looking monks in the eye for the first time, as equals rather than subordinates. "This wasn't easy," she recalled. "I was basically redefining everything they'd been taught. You see, religion controls you from the inside. That is why Buddhism has become the last stronghold of patriarchy. You can't have equality anywhere if people already have this patriarchal interpretation of Buddhism internalised."
Indeed, some of the most vociferous objections to monastic equality often come from women themselves. In 2011, when a mae chi dared to take over a Thai temple in India, another prominent mae chi in Thailand, Ananta Nakboon, responded thusly: ''What was she thinking? Mae chi are under the support and teaching of the monks. We have no right to challenge their authority in any case. In the temple, the teaching of the monks receives the highest respect from the people. The mae chi do not earn the same respect. How can they then manage temples successfully?''
I decided at this point that what I needed was a monk's perspective. To get it, I sent my male colleague Aydan (who speaks far better Thai than I) to the nearest temple, Wat Gate, armed with a list of questions that I figured might be answered more candidly without a female present. There, Aydan met Senior Monk Prakusunti Jaesiagorn from Mae Wang. Prakusunti has been a monk since childhood, and with no plans to disrobe, he plans to be a monk forever.
Knowing there is a specific section of Wat Gate where women aren't allowed to tread, I told Aydan to ask why.
"It's part of northern Thai Buddhism but also all of Theravada," replied Prakusunti. "The stupa is full of religious artefacts that are buried underneath and inside. Women can't go up there as they cannot be that close to and above religious icons like that. It creates bad karma."
When asked about the possibility of women becoming monks, Prakusunti was dismissive. "I know that women are being ordained in other countries like Hong Kong and Sri Lanka but it has not yet happened here," he said. "It doesn't work with Thai culture and Thai Buddhist beliefs. Women can be mae chi. That's enough." With that, he ended the conversation and walked away.
It was then that Aydan encountered a middle-aged husband and wife coming to pray. The man went up into the stupa while the woman waited outside and chatted with Aydan in Thai.
"I think years ago, men made this rule to assert power over women and now we are stuck with it," she said. "Menstruation has been considered dirty forever in Buddhism, but being a woman used to be much more equal, I was told. When I bring children to the temple, they will ask me why women can't go up to the stupa. I answer simply that it is bad, but they always ask 'Why is it bad?' and I can't answer that question. I don't really know why, but we are taught it from our parents who learned it from their parents. I think it is a bit dated, but that's what religion is: old."
A New Movement
Confronted with so much old-fashioned thinking, I was thrilled at the opportunity to meet Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, a living revolutionary and the first ever Thai woman to receive full ordination as a Theravada Buddhist nun. Dhammananda is considered both a threat to the old order and an encouraging symbol of change for Theravada Buddhism. As abbess of Wat Songkhammakalayani in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand's only temple to house fully ordained nuns, Dhammananda has taken 311 precepts (compared to the monks' 227) and has slowly but surely built a network of Thai bhikkhunis, despite the fact that they're technically banned.
Born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, the 69-year-old scholar and mother of three always had a feeling she would devote her life to spiritual practice; she just didn't know when. "My mother was a bhikkhuni before me, but in the Mayahana tradition, which is more open than Theravada," she tells me. I'm back at Ouyporn's centre in Mae Rim, where Bhikkhuni Dhammananda is delivering a lecture on the role of feminism in Buddhism. She wears the traditional saffron robes, thin silver-rimmed glasses and a shaved head and eyebrows. "But I didn't just become a bhikkhuni to follow in my mother's footsteps," she adds. "I did it mainly because of my academic background."
It was in 2003 that Dhammananda received her full ordination, but she had to do it in Sri Lanka due to the Thai sangha's restrictions. Her decision to become a bhikkhuni has generated quite a bit of controversy from Thai Theravada leaders, but that has not stopped nearly 80 other Thai women from joining her.
"Traditionally, people have never seen women ordained," says Dhammananda. "They resist because they're not used to it, and their resistance comes from a lack of information and flexibility."
Next year, according to Sri Lankan Theravada regulations, Dhammananda's seniority will allow her to ordain other bhikkhunis. "Things have been unfolding in a positive way, much faster than I thought they would," she says, and believes that recognition from the Thai sangha's council of elders will come in time.
And Then, the Twist
I was feeling quite enthusiastic about the future of Buddhism at this point, when suddenly Dhammananda said something that stopped me in my tracks. "Of course, those who are ordained must be ambassadors for Buddhism, so they have to be screened, the cream of the crop. We wouldn't take anyone who was too short, or too tall, or disabled..."
Uh...what? With these words came a collective gasp from the other participants at the workshop, all activists from around the world. Hands shot up into the air. We had questions, namely, what happened to everything you just said about overcoming discrimination and being flexible?
Our questions got us nowhere. Dhammananda seemed thoroughly convinced of her views and unwilling to recognise the intersectionality between different marginalised groups (a key facet of modern feminism). She justified excluding the disabled by saying it's compassionate, that the monastic lifestyle is too difficult for them. Her explanations for height exclusions were even stranger, something about tall people not fitting in places and short people being too cute to be taken seriously. "Buddhism has space for everyone, but to be monastic is a different kind of lifestyle," she concluded.
Surprised, confused and disappointed, the other participants and I tried to make sense of what we'd just heard. Ouyporn, as surprised as the rest of us despite having organised the lecture, tried to put things into context a bit. Indeed, while no one was really sure about the short and tall thing, Dhammananda's discrimination against those with disabilities is actually very much in line with mainstream monastic law in Theravada Buddhism (which as I mentioned, also bars ordination for LGBT people and those with HIV).
"By taking ordination you're putting yourself in a limited position," Ouyporn said. "You take on the internalised rules." This is probably why Dhammananda has been able to get as far as she has without being exiled – by picking one battle and otherwise playing by the rules.
A Way Forward
Bhikkhuni Dhammananda is a radical in challenging the status quo by asserting her right to ordain as a female, but it seems that in other regards she's actually quite conservative, and perhaps at this point wrapped up in the rather elite trappings of high order monastics. As Ouyporn pointed out, "the Buddha himself came from wealth; he doesn't have a perspective outside of privilege." Similarly, senior monks in Thailand, even if they started out poor, eventually take on quite an advantageous position in society.
In this way, Ouyporn continued, sometimes monks are out of touch with those who are actually suffering: laypeople marginalised by society. Ironically, these are usually the people who need Buddhism the most. To exclude these people from the choice to ordain, you are essentially shutting the door on them, throwing up a major roadblock on their path to enlightenment. Perhaps this is why so many monks insist on pushing notions of bad karma, to shift blame from the patriarchal structure to the individual.
Ouyporn says that the main reason she has never ordained herself is because she has a more unfettered perspective as a layperson, and more freedom to fight for change by approaching from the outside. She does not belittle Dhammananda's landmark achievements, but refocuses instead on her own brand of feminism, making Buddhist teachings accessible and inclusive of everyone, not just able-bodied, heterosexual men, and not just able-bodied, heterosexual women, either.
Last year, Ouyporn organised and led Thailand's first ever Buddhist empowerment workshop for people with disabilities. Next month, over a dozen participants will return to her centre for leadership training, so that they can then go out and train others.
"This is movement building, a chance to give marginalised people the tools to go out and become their own activists," Ouyporn says. "All we're here to do is support them."