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Can Thai Theravada nuns and Roman Catholic women priests shatter the clerical glass ceiling?
During her ordination as a Theravada nun at Thailand’s Songdhammakalyani monastery, Jiep collects her hair in a lotus leaf.
DRESSED IN SAFFRON ROBES, Venerable Dhammananda turned to me with scissors in her hands and asked, “And now your turn, Victoria?” Thailand’s first ordained Theravada bhikkhuni (nun) of the 21st century smiled. Her eyes welcomed me through round eyeglasses framed by a perfectly round shaven head. With this urging, I stepped to the side of the seated woman whose hair Dhammananda was cutting. For several days I’d seen Jiep about the monastery, or wat, dressed in the white clothes of a volunteer. She was young, maybe 22, with shoulder-length black hair. She’d been raised in this monastery since the age of 12, when her parents, having little money, brought her there to live and be educated. A few days before this ceremony, she had received her B.A. in journalism from central Thailand’s Nakhon Pathom Rajabhat University.
“The fact that she thought ordination is a worthwhile way of life, that made me cry, because life today for young people is usually so focused on consuming and acquiring,” reflected Dhammananda when we spoke earlier that week. And now here Jiep sat, on a stool under a banyan tree, watching her thick black hair accumulate with each snip of the scissors into a large lotus leaf that she held just below her chin. It was nine a.m. on a startlingly bright day. The morning sun was held at bay by a large umbrella placed over Jiep and the heads of the other female members of the assembled sangha: bhikkhunis, mae ji (Thai female renunciants), and lay women volunteers.
As I took the scissors, the significance of the invitation to participate in this traditional Buddhist ordination rite as a Roman Catholic woman priest was clear to me. I had come to this monastery to explore with Dhammananda the possible parallels between the struggle for women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church and that of Theravada women in Thailand.
I took a strand of Jiep’s long black silky hair in my hands and cut. According to Dhammananda, with each cutting Jiep would repeat to herself: Hair, nails, skin— the impermanence of it all. One month earlier, an hour after my mother’s death, I had helped the nurse wash my mother’s body. Now I remembered so clearly the feel of my mother’s skin, her hands and arms, and yet my mother was not there. Skin that was, in some ways, no longer skin. Its use finished. Impermanent.
Dhammananda and I and now Jiep were all “outlaws”: an “illegal” ordained nun in the eyes of Thailand’s sangha and a woman priest contra legem in the eyes of the Vatican participating in the “illegal” ordination of a samaneri. (Theravada Buddhist ordination has two levels: first one becomes a samaneri, then a bhikkhuni or bhikkhu (monk); in the the Roman Catholic Church one is first ordained a deacon and then a priest.)
Earlier, upon my arrival at Songdhammakalyani monastery, I had given Dhammananda a gift, a clear crystal chalice engraved with “Women’s Ordination Conference.” WOC is a thirty-year-old organization in the United States that advocates for women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. I have been on their board for three years. As I placed the chalice on a shelf in her residence, Dhammananda said, “We shall use it in the ordination ceremony.” This was the first indication that my visit had been blessed with an ordination. “It will hold the water of dedication.”
Nearly a hundred people sat on the third floor of the main ceremonial hall, witnessing Jiep receive her begging bowl and saffron robes. She was given the WOC chalice filled with the water of dedication, which she poured into a bowl. As Dhammananda explains it, “The water of dedication is a reenactment from the Buddha when he confronted the army of demons. He called on the Goddess of Earth to witness all the good things he had done in past lives, and every time he did, he poured water on the earth. So the Goddess of Earth personified herself and squeezed the water from her long hair. This caused a great flood and defeated the demons. So we pour water every time we do an act of merit to dedicate it to the nation, our parents, our loved ones, and even our enemy.”
The new samaneri invited her teacher to preach. Dhammananda offered, “This moment of your ordination, this is a moment of rebirth, a new beginning of goodness…” I am still struck by her dedication. Certainly the ordination of women, whether in Thailand’s Theravada Buddhism or Roman Catholicism, is a moment of rebirth, and surely it is good for both traditions. For each has its own early history of ordained women—histories that these religious hierarchies have chosen to disempower.
In conversations with Dhammananda and in her books, I discovered numerous parallels between the histories that have shaped our two movements. In Theravada Buddhism, the first bhikkhuni was the Buddha’s own stepmother and aunt. There are at least seventy-three names of fully ordained women recorded in the Therigatha (“Psalms of the Elder Sisters”) and, as Dhammananda has noted in her scholarly work, “thirteen of them were singled out and praised by the Buddha. The female order not only shared the same responsibilities as monks but also helped to propagate Buddhism. In the third century BCE, King Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta went to Sri Lanka to give ordination to Sri Lankan women.” This lineage later moved to China and Korea, but never to Thailand. It was not until 1928 that two Thai women were ordained, only to be imprisoned and forced out of the saffron robes. The Thai Supreme Patriarch declared that the lineage of bhikkhunis in Theravada Buddhism had died out many centuries earlier. Thai monks were now forbidden to ordain women.