Ordained in Sri Lanka in 2003, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, 73, is Thailand’s first fully-ordained Theravada bhikkhuni (female monastic). Known as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, she made headlines last year when she was barred from going inside the Grand Palace to pay tribute to the late King Bhumibol because the Thai Sangharaja Council of Elders does not recognize female monks. As Women’s Day (Mar 8) approaches, we chat to this progressive force in Thai Buddhism, who is head of the all-woman Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Nakhon Pathom, as she gears up to receive the Women’s Human Rights Defenders Honorary Certificate from the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.
How did you feel about being barred from paying your respects to the late king?
It’s awful for any Thai citizen to be treated like that. We had sent a letter a month earlier stating that we, a group of bhikkhuni, would like to pay our respects at the Grand Palace at 3pm on Dec 9. The palace acknowledged it, so we thought we would be treated as a large group of monks or nuns, not laypeople, who must take a different entrance. Meanwhile, the palace management team had set up tents to take care of the monks. When we were taken there I knew we would face trouble because those in charge do no regard us as monks. It was a difficult situation and I had 72 bhikkhuni with me, most of them samaneri [female novices] who had ordained on Dec 5 especially to pay their respects to the late king.
Thailand’s just appointed a new Sangharaja [supreme patriarch], Somdet Phra Ariyawongsakhatayan. Do you see any positives for bhikkhuni here?
We’re just a small part of his responsibilities. However, I hope that with Somdet Phra Ariyawongsakhatayan’s experiences of studying abroad and his desire to be a good role model, he will have a broader perspective than previous supreme patriarchs. I feel his vision is more in tune with modern Thailand, and I’m sure he’ll be a positive force looking ahead.
Why did you choose to become a bhikkhuni instead of a maechi [devout, ascetic laywomen]?
The Lord Buddha designed four groups of Buddhism (Fourfold of Sangha): bhikkhu [male monks], bhikkhuni, laymen and laywomen. He never ever said Buddhism should only be in the hands of bhikkhu. Also, I’m the third generation of a deeply religious family. My grandma was a nun and my mother was a bhikkhuni of the Mahayana sect as she ordained in Taiwan. I worked as an academic professor of religious philosophy all my life. When I was attending international forums in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was all men—in every religion, not just Buddhism. It was really unbalanced. Feminist or not, I could see clearly that women were considered a tiny minority.
What’s your goal as a bhikkhuni?
My mission is to establish a bhikkhuni sangha [female monk assembly] in Thailand. Some people say if I want that so much, I should just go and do it somewhere else. But I’m Thai and I want my work to benefit the Thai people. Any Buddhist country that doesn’t have the four groups of Buddhism is just an unaccomplished land. Even the current Dalai Lama has said Tibet isn’t an accomplished country yet as they don’t have bhikkhuni. It’s like a chair—if one leg is missing, it will collapse easily.
How do you see the future of bhikkhunis in Thailand?
We are the biggest Buddhist country in the world yet we’re barred from ordaining as bhikkhuni in our homeland. There’s currently no space to be a bhikkhuni here. This is something society needs to be made aware of. I hope the structure of the new Sangharaja Council of Elders will provide us with justice.
Watch our video of Dhammananda Bhikkhuni's story: