Venerable Dhammananda, the most senior monk at Songdhammakalyani Monastery, in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, is laughing. Her protege, Venerable Dhammavanna, a 39-year-old former journalist, has just told us a story about overhearing members of the public whispering disapprovingly about her being a woman and a monk.
"In my case, it is different," says Ven. Dhammananda, who was born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh but changed her name in 2003 when she was ordained. The 72-year-old wears the same saffron or burgundy robes as male monks, and has a shaved head; she says that nowadays few people realize she is a woman, often with consequences she finds hilarious. "Particularly going to toilet, they always say, 'Come, come Venerable Father, come this side.'"
Songdhammakalyani was the first center for female monks in the Thailand, and it's still one of only about 20, spread across the country's 76 provinces. There are around 100 female monks living in these monasteries, compared to an estimated 300,000 male monks in Thailand.
Female monks, known in Buddhist scripture as bhikkhunis, are not officially recognised by Thailand's conservative Buddhist clergy. Because Buddhism is the country's official religion, the state and clergy are inextricably linked, giving the latter immense power. At their behest, the Thai authorities have banned the ordination of women on Thai soil, meaning that most female monks have had to travel abroad to be ordained in Sri Lanka, where the practice was legalized in 1998. Ven. Dhammananda was the first person to do this, back in 2003.
On returning to Thailand, Bhikkhunis are denied the benefits and funding male monks are entitled to, and often face hostility from the public.
"It will be very difficult for them [the State, the clergy and conservative Buddhist citizens] to put a stop to it, because it has spread out on its own," Ven. Dhammananda explained. "We [the women at Songdhammakalyani] are the first, but we are only 17. Others have heard of my route to getting ordination, so they have started going out to Sri Lanka on their own."
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But as the number of Thai women seeking ordination has increased, the level of backlash against them appears to have risen too.
Last month, a dormitory building at the International Women's Meditation Center in Rayong, a coastal town just south of the capital, Bangkok, was set alight by arsonists who the two resident bhikkhunis say oppose their presence there.
One of the women, Bhikkhuni Dr Lee, told the Bangkok Post that before the incident a group of drunk men shouted that they intended to burn down the center for daring to ordain women. She has also received death threats, and men with guns once broke into the compound and destroyed CCTV equipment.
According to Ven. Dhammananda, nothing anywhere near as extreme as the incident in Rayong has happened at Songdhammakalyani. She speculated that the problem in Rayong was 'personal': the center there is fairly new, and one of the only two monks there, Bhikkhuni Dr Lee, is American, which affect the way she is perceived by local people.
"We don't have problems with the local community here," Ven. Dhammananda said, estimating that 50 percent of local people support them. "But we have problems when we deal with the government."
The Thai government have allegedly repeatedly denied visas to Sri Lankan monks who want to ordain women in the country, and have even threatened to arrest bhikkhunis on the charge of impersonating a monk, a civil offence in Thailand. This is all despite a clause in the constitution defending religious freedom, which could shortly be revoked if a draft law is passed, potentially making the situation a lot worse for Thailand's bhikkhunis.
The Songdhammakalyani monks have a strategy for dealing with people who don't support them: to have as little to do with them as possible. "We don't burden ourselves with their ignorance," Ven. Dhammananda said. "If every step we take we have to care that we get approval, then we cannot do anything." She added: "Because I am an academic I always check what the text says, and then I am reassured that we are on the right path."
Ven. Dhammananda explained that the Buddha oversaw the ordination of women monks thousands of years ago, and their existence is written into Buddhist scripture as "more or less" equal to men.
Later I asked another woman at the monastery, Dhammacetana, why Thai society seems to have forgotten that women can be monks too, and why bringing them back has proved so controversial."It is still a world ruled by men. Everywhere," she said, as if it were obvious. "Before the Buddha, women were viewed as lower than animals. The Buddha said all were equal. After the Buddha, this was largely forgotten."
Although institutional sexism isn't stopping some women from becoming monks, it is affecting some demographics more than others. Ven. Dhammananda told me that two-thirds of the last intake of women wanting to train as bhikkhuni were educated to degree level or above. Overall in Thailand, less than a third of the population have a degree.
Ven. Dhammananda suggested that this could be because privileged, educated women have time to browse the internet and chat to other educated people who know about the existence of bhikkhunis. Poorer, less educated women often simply don't know about them, and if they ask male monks about the possibility of ordination they're often deterred.
But the bhikkhuni's steadily increasing numbers and patience in educating the public may help them gradually gain ground.As well as representing a powerful call for gender equality, they could bring a level of reform to a country where male monks have been accused of everything from child abuse and inciting racial hatred.
Female monks also offer a valuable service to women. As well as hosting the sick, the monks—most of whom had outside lives and careers before ordination—counsel women on issues they often wouldn't feel comfortable speaking to male monks about. When I visit Ven. Dhammananda points out a woman who, unlike most of the others, is not wearing saffron or burgundy monk robes.
"She has breast cancer," she tells me, explaining that the woman stays at the monastery between chemotherapy sessions, because she doesn't have anyone to look after her at home."It is very sad," she says, before breaking into an unexpected smile. "But I told her not to worry; when you get to our age, what do you need breasts for anymore anyway?" I imagine it would be pretty difficult to discuss the pros and cons of mastectomy with a Venerable Father.
"It is our intention," Ven. Dhammananda concluded, "to provide a place for all women to come, to practice, and to feel at home."