Powerful Women in Buddhism
Buddhist Women Celebrating Their Strengths
Bangkok, 6th March, 2008!
A report by Sabine Hayoz Kalff
Award for Sylvia Wetzel on the occasion of the
Outstanding Women of Buddhism Award Ceremony
In Honor of the United Nations International Woman´s Day
Bangkok, 6th March, 2008
In the lobby to the award ceremony hall, there is an exhibition of photos, short biographies and projects of the award winning women. In this year, twenty women are honored, twelve of them are ordained, including six Bhikkunis, fully ordained nuns. Seven are Asian women and five are from Europe and the USA. Among the eight honored lay women, six are from Asia and two from the West, including Sylvia Wetzel from Germany.
The entrance to the hall is lined with two rows of little girls and a few boys, all beautifully dressed in their typical festive costumes. They are holding up a poster with a welcome greeting to the award winning women: "Welcome Outstanding Women in Buddhism". Although only in pre-school or early school age, all girls have a make-up like real dancers and are posing for one hour, silently and in a well educated manner without giggling, gossiping or running around. With their large eyes, they are looking around and allowing the audience to look at them with curiosity and to take photos of them in such a naturalness and equanimity that delights me as a European woman and makes me wonder at the same time. Later on, these children will perform a welcome dance which is enjoyably appropriate for children and without any perfect choreography.
In the great hall, two rows of tables have been set up and decorated in white for the outstanding women. Each place is marked with a painted Kuan Yin statue and the respective national flag of the award winning woman. Large flags decorate the stage as well and underline the international character of the event.
Nuns in a Variety of Robes and Other Women and Men
Among the approximately two hundred people, the many nuns and the varying colors of their robes are catching the attenders' eyes. The majority of them are many young and some older Thai women dressed in light blossom white robes, most of the organisational helpers of the event today are members of this group. A few are wearing the yellow of Thai Buddhism. This is a political issue, as we will learn later on. Some nuns from Taiwan are wearing an uncommon dark red. They have studied the old texts and found that they do not have to wear only gray or yellow and light red. The nuns from Korea are dressed in noble gray, and a US American nun is wearing black. Monks are not present, neither from the East nor from the West. The political meaning of their absence and of the robe colors will be revealed to us in the course of the ceremony and of our stay in Thailand.
In the audience, there are about as many lay people as ordained persons, most of them are women in dresses between elegant and simple. About a fifth of all attenders are press representatives, most of the present men belong to them. They, but also the attenders, are taking photos throughout the event, almost non-stop, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Nobody feels bothered, and all enjoy photos being taken of them any time. This event is obviously about seeing and being seen, celebrating and being celebrated and about enjoying this together. The event has been well documented already in the preparation phase, and it even appears on the front page of the Bangkok daily newspaper, the Thai edition, and with a complete page in the English Bangkok Post.
The Opening Speech by Bhikkuni Dr. Lee
Born in America, Dr. Lee is an academic and fully ordained nun who has been living and working in Thailand for some years. She and her Thai colleague, Bhikkuni Dr. Rattanavali, are the founders and organizers of this award granting organisation (OWBA) honoring especially meritoriousady for the seventh time in a series. The event always takes place on the occasion of the international Women's Day in Bangkok. Dr. Lee explains that in previous years the ceremonies had taken place in a much more elaborate and official setting in the UN building with many VIPs, representatives of the royal family, diplomats and members of the government. Unfortunately, the original purpose of this event faded somehow under all this splendor. This year, the focus shall again be more on: the direct exchange between the award winning women and with Thai women about the rights and the position of women in Buddhism and in society. We are learning how far equal rights for women are away from the reality of modern Thailand.
Maechees - The White Nuns
The irritating thing about Thai Buddhism is that the Bhikkuni order, that means the full ordination for women, does not exist (any more) - like in most other Asian countries, but that it is downright prohibited here. Leading monks in Thailand have the opinion that throughout history there has never been any Buddhist order for women. There is hope that they discover in discussions with their brothers in Sri Lanka that there have been Bhikkunis in Sri Lanka as well up to the tenth century of our era and that already more than five hundred fully ordained women are living in Sri Lanka. This could clear the way for Bhikkunis from Sri Lanka ordaining Thai women. At present, an application for the introduction of the full ordination is pending at the highest monk council of Thailand, the Sangha Council; although it has not been approved yet, it has not been rejected either.
Nowadays, women in Thailand can only obtain the lay ordination with up to eight vows. The so-called white nuns with eight vows including celibacy are called Maechee, and they are considered as devotional lay women, but monks do not consider them as part of the ordained sangha. In Thailand and Sri Lanka, lay people are dressed in white when they enter a temple. Apart from the fact that white is not a very practical colour for everyday life, the clothing of the Maechees emphasizes their closeness to the lay status and not to the sangha, the Buddhist community of the ordained wearing orange robes. On one hand, they are considered as quasi nuns, wear robes, even if in white, and they live in celibacy. On the other hand, however, and this is the scandalous part, they are not seen as part of the ordained sangha. Therefore, they do not enjoy any social privileges taken for granted by the monks here. They are not allowed to walk around with their alms bowls, they have to use the temple entrances for lay people, and they cannot use the public transport for free. Needless to say that this is allowed to the approx. 350.000 monks. No, far from it: the Maechees are serving the monks and the society in many places, but they remain in their subordinate position and have hardly any chance to receive education. In spite of all that, their number is high in Thailand, as Buddhism is highly respected, and even this quasi nun status offers a good alternative to the restricted life as a housewife and, for the poorer women, also an important resort from threatening prostitution.
Some Maechees are very well known and make the best of their limited options. There are also spiritual teachers among them. However, they may teach only women of their kind and lay people. Two Maechees are honoured today for their extraordinary merits they achieved by improving the status and the rights of this nun order: Maechee Waree Chuethasanaprasit and Maechee Pimjai Maneerat. The only nun college existing in Thailand today is the Mahaprajapati Nuns College with about sixty female students, plus about thirty lay women from the region. Fortunately, here they receive a comprehensive education with the option for an academic graduation, the Batchelor of Arts, B.A. Founded by a wealthy female lay teacher, this school was taken over recently after her death by an influential Bhikkhu - which is a scandal. Some of us will visit this college on our tour on the day following the ceremony.
Bhikkunis in Thailand
We learn from Bhikkuni Dr. Lee that, in spite of the prohibition, about 200 Bhikkunis are living in Thailand who, however, like she herself, received their ordination in Taiwan or at one of the few other places where the female transmission lineage for nuns still exists. Later in personal conversations, she will tell some of us how much courage it takes to live here in Thailand as a Bhikkuni, as they have to expect being forced to disrobe or arrested by the police if they appear in public in their traditional yellow Thai robes. She herself was almost assassinated. Women ordained according to the Chinese or Korean tradition and wearing the respective grey or ochre robes can live in Thailand and show up in public. However, they too are not considered as part of the sangha and have to use the temple entrances for lay people.
Unfortunately, there are no places yet where Bhikkunis following the Thai Buddhism could live together peacefully and form their own community, let alone expect the material support which is the most natural thing for their male colleagues. Although monk orders are lacking novices and about five thousand monasteries are almost or completely empty, nuns are not allowed to take them over and save them from falling apart.
The purpose of the award ceremony today is to draw the attention to this miserable situation and to promote the abolishment of the prohibition of the Bhikkuni order in Thailand and the establishment and growth of the Bhikkuni order in Thailand and worldwide. This is the reason why six Bhikkunis from Asia, Europe and the USA are deliberately honoured today.
The Merits Achieved by Feminist Women in Thailand
Bhikkuni Dr. Lee now emphasizes the accomplishments of the unordained women in Buddhism and in society and the importance of cooperation. Today, four Thai women are honoured, the medical doctor Khunying Porntip, the author Orasom Sutisakorn, the nurse Angoon Wongcharoen and Senatoress Tuenjai. All of them show outstanding activities for the rights of women, especially against the rampant prostitution in Thailand, the belittlement of day-to-day violence against women and for disclosing covered cases of women who were murdered by their families.
On top of that, the four award winners have offered the tsunami victims selfless support and above all they have organised material and legal help for otherwise rightless widows, single mothers and children. On a political level, Ms. Senator Tuenjai and the chairwoman of APSW are working for the passing of a law that shall acknowledge the religious status of the nuns and thus grant them the privileges of the sangha.
Here, nuns and lay people are walking hand in hand on the way towards the emanzipation of women and are aware of the need for a cooperation between the clergy and the state. Here it is reviled to us in a very concrete way how eminent the political importance of equal rights for both genders is especially in the spiritual world as well. The male primacy in society and the male autarchy in the Buddhist sangha are reflected in the suppression of women in the Thai society. Here we realize in a concrete way that ordained women, spiritual teachers and enlightened women are not just a nice idea or important inspirations, but it becomes clear how indispensable they are. They represent the necessary precondition for gender equality on the spiritual path and thus in their effect on the whole society as well.
The emblem of the event, a glaring red women icon made of plastic is about 6.5 cm long and can be used as a whistle. It reminds us grey-haired Western feminists in a somewhat nostalgic way of the women's demonstrations in our youth, but as Buddhist women we can relate to them today in the present as well.
Bhikkuni Dr. Lee, who is fluent in Thai language, will be translating all speeches throughout the event. The third language of the event is Chinese. After an impressive and explanatory introduction by Dr. Lee, a young woman dressed in yellow silk performs a graceful Thai dance. We are told that she and the children are living in the home for women and children on the event site.
The Active Women's Organisation APSW
The next speaker tells us more about this unique place for women. The whole compound is a project of the women's organisation APSW, Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women under the patronage of the influential royal family, or more precisely: under the patronage of H.R.H. Princess Soamsawali. The speaker today is the vice president of APSW, Khunying Nathanond Thavisin from Thailand. She explains to us that this place is an oasis in Bangkok not just from the outer point of view: calm, green and peaceful, but in the real sense of the word a shelter for women and children in emergency situations. She and the president of APSW, Dr. Suteera Vichintranonda, who will speak and show videos in the early afternoon, present the seven impressive projects run by this women's organisation: an emergency assistance house for women and children, the Jimmy-Rosalynn Carter Women's Clinic, a home for parentless children and for unmarried mothers, a crisis intervention centre offering psychological care and legal support for raped women, an education and advanced training centre for women (WE-Train: Women´s Education Training Center), a youth house and a research institute for gender issues (GDRI: Gender and Development Research Institute). The Education Training Centre includes the hotel where we are accommodated, the event hall, the restaurant, a sports hall and the swimming pool in the park. Later on that day, the committed manageress will show us the home for mothers and children and the crisis intervention centre for raped women. Here and in personal conversations, we learn more about the shocking extent of prostitution, the sad fate of girls sold by their parents, and the misery of child prostitution.
It is a great stroke of luck that the Princess has taken over the patronage of APSW. Since that point of time, the organisation and its projects have enjoyed protection and prestige and received sufficient donations. We are relieved to see how well and with how much courage the centres are managed. We are convinced that help is really granted here on site, and we wish that many more will follow their model in this wide country and elsewhere.
Speeches Held by the Award Winning Women
After these elucidating and shaking presentations, three of the award winning women make their statements. The first one is the young Thai Bhikkuni Silananda. She achieved acceptance as the first Bhikkuni at the Buddhist College with international teachers from Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana in North Thailand. She recently achieved the final degree. Thus she is the precursor for the acceptance and education of Bhikkunis in Thailand. We are happy to hear from her that there are also some Bhikkus in Thailand promoting the education of the nuns, helping to establish the nun order and even being prepared to ordain nuns against the law. Bhikkuni Silananda was ordained by Bhikku Gosin as a Samaneri nun and received the full ordination from a group of Thai and Cambodian monks.
The second speaker is the American Zen nun Reverend Beth Kanji Goldring who presents the relief project founded and managed by her in Cambodia. Over the past eight years, she has established a project to support AIDS victims and to offer terminal care for people without family, both issues are taboos in Cambodia. On her striking photos, she presents her dedicated team caring for the sick and dying people. They can help many of them with Reiki body work in addition to the medical care. She also documents the dying process of a nun accompanied by loving support and the funeral rites.
The Head Nun of the Korean Nun Order Speaks Plain Language
The third one is the main speaker this morning. At the same time, she is the most prominent and highest ranking among the award winning women. She is the head nun of the Bhikkuni Sangha in Korea, the venerable 79year old Dr. Myung Kung Sunim. She and her two accompanying nuns, one of them herself being an abbess of a nunnery, are impressive persons. In contrast to their smiling Thai and Chinese colleagues, they look serious or even grim, radiating great sovereignty and authority. Before the entrance of the Mistress, her two disciples recite and sing prayers in a wonderful and tuneful way.
Her speech is a dharma talk and at the same time a passionate political appeal to her Thai nun sisters to take matters into their own hands and to follow her own example in Korea, where the female sangha has not always flourished as it does today, even if the nun order in Korea has been existing without interruption since its establishment in the 3rd century. She is encouraging the Thai women in their efforts, giving them confidence and optimism and at the same time promising to support them with words and deeds. She traces her own authority back to Buddha Shakyamuni. Buddha himself established the nun order, is her wise argumentation, so who should bar her today from establishing it again? She closes her flaming speech with her heart-felt wish that the Bhikkuni order will soon be acknowledged and be able to grow in Thailand. In Korea, she is the head nun of a nunnery with an educational training centre for women she founded herself. Under her guidance, the Bhikkuni order in Korea has arisen anew and gained strength, the number of nuns has grown from about 1000 nuns in the 1940ies to 10,000 nuns. Her presence adds weight and Buddhist authority to the ceremony today.
Successful Bhikkunis in Taiwan
The Korean delegation is supported by the three award winning women from Taiwan, Dr. Li Hua Yang, Bhikkuni Sik Wei Chun and Bhikkuni Jain Jin. Taiwan is one of the few Buddhist places where the Bhikkuni order according to the Dhammagupta transmission lineage has been existing without any interruption since its establishment in China. Many Buddhist nuns from the West have a good chance to obtain full ordination there, especially the nuns of the Tibetan tradition as well. One of the reasons is that at least some nuns in Taiwan speak a good English. The two honoured Chinese nuns had an important role in supporting the revival of the Bhikkuni order in Sri Lanka, and they organised immediate and active help for the tsunami victims as well. Both show great self-confidence and tell about their flourishing nun projects in Taiwan. The Taiwanese Bhikkuni Sik Wei Chun, who grew up in Canada, is the head nun of the "Bhiksuni Sangha Ashram Daksinavana"she established. It includes a great nun community of all vow levels (Sramanerika, Siksamana, Bhiksuni) and an academy, especially for the studies of the Vinaya, including educational programs for lay practitioners (Upasika) as well.
The Taiwanese nuns suggest to use the good infrastructure of their nunneries in Taiwan for the next award ceremony and offer to organize everything and cover all the expenses for it. However, although this offer is tempting, the award ceremony will continue to take place in Bangkok, as its publicity is urgently needed for the issue of the women and nuns here. The great echo in the media shows that the emanzipation of women is a red-hot iron here.
The Award Winning Women in Word and Picture
After these presentations, Dr. Lee starts to introduce the twenty award winning women by a Powerpoint slide show including portraits and short biographies. Approximately after the first half, this presentation is interrupted at 11 am because the nuns have to have their lunch before noon time. After noon, they will not eat anything before the next morning. This rule is strictly adhered to here in general by the ordained, monks and nuns. The restaurant of the event place offers a rich, tasty vegetarian buffet. New contacts are made in Thai, English, Chinese and Korean language. With friendly curiosity and patient translating, we learn more about each other and identify what we have in common as active Buddhist women in spite of large cultural differences. The temperature outside rises towards 35° C, but the air-conditioned rooms are comfortably cool.
After the lunch break, the hall is more than full. Almost all award winning women with their entourage are here now. Sylvia Wetzel, who had missed her plane the day before, luckily happens to come just in time for her portrait presentation. She is honoured for her pioneer achievements for Buddhism in Europe, especially for the training of women, for her numerous publications and her translation work.
Sikhamat - Nuns with Ten Vows
Among the other portrayed women, there is one especially impressive Thai nun, the petite 83year old Sikhamat Phussadi Sardwong living in the Buddhist community Santi Asoke which is based in about ten different places in Thailand. These communities for ordained and unordained women and men as well as for families with children operate on the basis of the five silas, joint property and self-supply. On our tour on the following day, we will visit Sikhamat Phussadi in her paradise-like community. She herself is a courageous woman. Originally, she had been a Maechee, but she was dissatisfied with the restrictions of this subordinate status. She wanted to study further and decided to take the next vow level, even if this is prohibited in Thailand, and became a Sikhamat, which literally means a nun with ten vows. Supported by the founder of the Asoke centres, Bodhiraksa, she founded the Sikhamat Sangha together with her followers and decided to replace the unpractical white robes by brown and grey ones. Although this was not legal in the opinion of the monk hierarchy, nobody has really been able to block her way. Today, she is a widely respected and honoured personality.
However, the Bhikkhus in her community are punished in her place. The founder of the Asoke centres was forced to disrobe. He himself and all his monks were officially excluded from the Bhikkhu sangha. They are not allowed to call themselves Bhikkhus any longer because, according to the justification, they allow the prohibited Sikhamat nuns to join their community. So monks helping the nuns have to expect sanctions; all the more pleasant it is to know that there are such courageous men doing it anyway.
Another surprising award winning women comes from California, Jacqueline
Kramer. She is called Buddha Mom, as she has written a book with this title
in which she combines Buddhist and motherly wisdom and passes her practical
advice and Buddhist knowledge on to mothers. Her concern is the liberation
of the fourth sangha Buddha named, the sangha of the lay women, from its
neglected existence and its strengthening. Being a Buddhist mother herself,
she has established a virtual internet school for mothers, including various
Buddhist study programs and exchange forums. The classes are frequently
attended via internet by mothers from all over the world and are served
by Jacqueline for free.
At last, also Nobuko Ono from Japan receives an award because of her special merits for the student community in Tokyo.
The Award Ceremony - Women Celebrating Women
Now, after the end of the portrait presentations, the excitement grows considerably. An even larger number of press representatives is attending, and all award winning women are sitting at their white places now, except for the two women who have sent their representatives, Bhikkuni Pema Chödrön from the USA, who is missing because of her old age, and Ajahn Anandabodhi from Great Britain. The German Bhikkuni Mudita Teresa of Ayya Khema's forest nunnery tradition is missing as well. As I am told later, she did not want to accept the award, as the reason for the award, the existance of the first little nunnery in Germany founded by her, is at stake at the moment.
For the prelude, the Thai Bhikkunis and Maechees are gathering on the stage and reciting the refuge prayers together in an impressive way. Then the ceremony itself starts: the handing over of the awards. It takes place with great solemnity in four steps repeated with each winner; one by one is asked to come onto the stage. Bhikkuni Shiou-I from Taiwan, the chairwoman of the award committee, hands over the certificate stamped in golden letters in a splendid golden frame and a trophy from crystal glass that is illuminated in all rainbow colours by a little lamp. After that, the Chinese Bhikkuni Great Mistress Kuang Seng, abbess of the big Guan Yin Tempel in Bangkok, hands over the painted Kuan Yin statue. After each single handing over, there is time for a photo shooting, always accompanied by a flurry of flashbulbs. At last, Bhikkuni Rattanavali hands over a skillfully bound fragrant flower garland. Then all women handing over the awards are posing together with all award winning women and all awards for a final photo. Although the ceremony is repeated eighteen times in the same way, nobody feels bored. All, especially the Asian women, are rejoicing in a queenly way and enjoy celebrating each other and being celebrated. Their joy is simply contagious. Women are celebrating joy and appreciation for each other. And this is never boring. And that is so good, even after eighteen times!
Then another final follows: all honoured women are gathering for a group photo on the stage, the ordained women standing and the lay women sitting or kneeling in front of them on the floor. After that, the celebrating and photo shooting goes on, families and friends are handing over real or huge artificial flowers, and dozens of photos are taken on the stage in all possible variations.
Also a German delegation gathers around Sylvia Wetzel, suddenly four Germans appear, three of them know Sylvia and happen to spend their vacations in Thailand; among them are Ruth Kölling and Wolfgang Presser from Seminarhaus Engl in Lower Bavaria, where Sylvia has been leading Tara retreats for many years. We, too, are busy taking pictures and celebrating the joyful moment.
The Celebration Goes On
After fruit, tea and cake, the celebration goes on.
Now each of the award winning women is asked to speak a few greeting words, which they do with moving, spontaneous and personal words and reports, and this takes the next two hours. After a short introduction about the importance of female role models, Sylvia Wetzel with her sonorous voice recites the English version of the invocation to the Great Wise Women, deeply moving and delighting especially some nuns. Here, the idea of a possible female Buddha is still very far away. During the following days, we will experience how up-to-date the legend of the Green Tara is for the situation of Buddhism in this country. We will see young Maechee nuns in Mahaprajapati College listening to Sylvia Wetzel full of enthusiasm. She is the first one to tell them about the courageous Buddha Tara, who smilingly rejects the well-meant advice of the monks recommending her a male rebirth in her next life. And who vows that from that time on she will only incarnate in a female body and awaken as a woman, which she does indeed. And we will be deeply touched in our hearts to see them learning with enthusiasm and great joy how to sing the Tara mantra.
The special day of the award ceremony ends with a joint visit to the home for children and women. The nuns bring little bags with sweets and gifts for the children. And at last a nice group photo is taken of nuns and women from East and West and with children and young mothers. Our hearts are full of hope and connectedness with all women and all other people and beings in the world.
Sabine Hayoz Kalff, born 1952, is Buddhist meditation teacher, authorized by Sylvia Wetzel. She accompanied Sylvia Wetzel on her journey to Bangkok. She has been studying and practicing Buddhism since 1981. Further important teachers of hers are Tibetan lamas, especially Lodro Rinpoche (Tara, Chöd etc.) and the American teacher Tsültrim Allione (Dakini, Chöd, Prajnaparamita etc.). Tara Rokpa therapy process, completion of the "Lion's roar" training with Rigdzin Shikpo. She is managing the Buddhist centre Zollikon, teaching soul painting, is married and mother to a son. Contact: Buddhistisches Zentrum Zollikon. www.emaho.info
List of the award winning women 2008
Bhikkuni Dr. Myung Sung Sunim, Korea
Bhikkuni Silananda, Thailand
Sikhamat Phussadi Sardwong, Thailand
Maechee Waree Chuethasanaprasit, Thailand
Maechee Pimjai Maneerat, Thailand
Senator Tuenjai Kunchon Na Ayutthya Deetaet, Thailand
Orasom Sutisakorn, Thailand
Nurse Angoon Wongcharoen, Thailand
Dr. Khunying Porntip Rojanasunan, Thailand
Bhikkuni Sik Wei Chun, Taiwan
Bhikkuni Jain Jin, Taiwan
Dr. Li Hua Yang, Taiwan
Sylvia Wetzel, Germany
Bhikkuni Mudita Teresa, Germany
Nobuko Ono, Japan
Bhikkuni Pema Chödrön, USA
Reverend Beth Kanji Goldring, USA/Cambodia
Jacqueline Kramer, USA
Reverend Patricia Dai-En Bennage, USA
Ajahn Anandabodhi, United Kingdom
About the Terms Nun, Monk, Lay People in Buddhism
The terms "nun" and "monk" come from the Christian tradition.
In Pali, the word for Buddhist monks is Bhikkhu, for nuns Bhikkhuni, for novices Samanera, for female novices Samaneri and for nuns in their two year preparation term Sikkhamana.
The corresponding Sanskrit terms are Bhiksu, Bhiksuni, Sramanera, Sramanerika, Siksamana. The Pali "Sikkhamat" literally means "Mother of [ten] vows".
In Sri Lanka, they are called Dasa-sila-mata, ten-vow-mothers.
The term Sikkhamat is used in Thailand - in contrast to the "maechee" in white robes -
for the quasi-novices in brown robes, who de jure are not recognized as novices though.
The "maechee" in white robes have eight vows (comparable to the Anagarika), a kind of intermediate state between lay people and nuns. The colour white is the colour of the "lay people". The "maechee", however, do not live with their families, as most lay people do, but they live in celibacy and shave their heads. Male lay people are called Upasaka, female lay people are called Upasika.
Translated by Annemarie Becker. April 2008