While it is often said that bhikkhuni ordination is illegal or banned in Thailand, this claim rests on a very slender thread. There have been, to my knowledge, no public pronouncements on the matter by the current Mahatherasamakhom, the governing body of Thai Buddhism, whose authority stems from the Sangha Act of 1962. Those seeking an ‘official’ position must fall back on a ruling issued in 1928; it is usually assumed that the modern Thai Sangha still operates under the authority of this ruling.
Before looking at that ruling, let’s get ourselves in the mood; peruse some photos from Thailand in this period; even watch a short home movie of street life. At this time, Thailand was still an absolute Monarchy, four years from the bloodless revolution that would bring about the first democratic Constitution.
The Sangha at this time was governed under the first Thai Sangha Act, of 1902. Supreme Sangha authority was vested by that act in the Mahatherasamakhom, whose authority under Section 2 of the Act was absolute and may not be disputed or appealed. At the time the Act was promulgated there was no Sangharaja (literally, ‘King of the Sangha), and there is no mention of a Sangharaja’s powers in the Act itself. The King of Thailand, in fact, was the head of the Sangha.
In 1928 the first modern Thai bhikkhunis ordained. I will give their story in the words of their spiritual heir, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, from her article ‘Three Waves of Bhikkhuni Sangha Thailand’.
The first wave happened in the year 1928 when Narin Klung intended to revive the Bhikkhuni Sangha. His reason was that the Buddha himself established the four groups of Buddhists, namely the Bhikkhu, the Bhikkhunis, Upasikas and Upasakas. The fact that in Thailand we did not have Bhikkhuni Sangha we should revive what we were missing. He was very critical of the government, he was very critical of the existence of the situation of the Sangha at that time. Already he started a kind of a dhamma group where the members met every week to discuss about the situation and to discuss about the dharma as practiced in Thailand at that time. Later on he donated his house which he called Nariwong and later on it became Wat Nariwong for the Bhikkhuni Sangha. He had two of his daughters Sara, the elder daughter and Jongdi. The younger one ordained. They started as Samaneris and later on the older one was ordained as Bhikkhuni. We have a record of them, there was not just the two of them, but at least eight other nuns with them, we have a picture of them also. Because Narin Klung himself was very critical of other institutions, namely the government and the Sangha, it brought about much conflict between the two. So when the Sangha ordered the arrest of all these nuns, as soon as the police approached them, all the other nuns disrobed, only the two sisters remained and both of them were taken to the prison. The older one was jailed for a couple of days, the robes were removed from her body violently. Later on when they were freed they changed the color of the robe and they still remained as Bhikkhuni and Samaneri. They went out for alms and they were well received by the people, they said people offered them sufficient Dana to keep them going. But this movement came to an end when the older sister while going out for alms in the morning was snatched away by somebody coming on a horseback. And that brought about the closing of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in 1928.
The Sangha reacted very negatively, the media reacted negatively, there were only two newspapers which was run by women that supported them. The Sangharaja, the Supreme Patriarch sent out an order, the famous or infamous order of 1928 saying that all Thai Bhikkhus are forbidden to give ordination to women either as Sikkhamana, Bhikkhuni or Samaneri.
So that was the end of the first wave.
That’s the story. So when people tell you that it’s illegal to ordain bhikkhunis in Thailand, never forget what actually happened. The women ordained and practiced the Dhamma. By order of the Sangha authorities, the police arrested them; most disrobed, and the bravest ones were thrown in gaol and subject to violence. When they were released one of them was abducted by a man on horseback.
Remember this, never forget it. When they tell you how bhikkhuni ordination is illegal in Thailand, remember whose side they are taking. Instead of condemning this behaviour as brutal and uncivilized, they are giving their support to the rule that came from this act of thuggery.
As a direct result of this affair, the following rule was announced. I quote the rule from an online source, and I cannot vouch for it, although it seems reliable enough.
“It is unallowable for any Bhikkhu to give the Going-Forth to Women
Any woman who wishes to ordain as a Samaneri, in accordance with the Buddha’s allowances, has to be ordained by a fully ordained Bhikkhuni. The Buddha laid down the rule that only a Bhikkhuni over 12 vassas is eligible to be a Preceptor (pavattini).
The Buddha did not allow for a Bhikkhu to be the preceptor in this ceremony. Unfortunately, the Bhikkhuni lineage has since faded and died out. Since there is no more fully-fledged Bhikkhunis to pass on the lineage, there is henceforth no Samaneris who have obtained a proper ordination from a fully-fledged Bhikkhuni.
Therefore both the Bhikkhuni and Samaneri lineage has died out. So any Bhikkhu who gives the going forth to a woman to become a Samaneri, it can be said that that Bhikkhu is not acting in accordance with the regulations the Buddha laid down. In essence, he is following his own guidelines and diverging from the guidelines that the Buddha laid down. This is something that will jeopardize the Buddhist Religion and is not a good example for other Bhikkhus.
Therefore, all monks and novices, in both Nikayas are forbidden to ordain any woman as a Bhikkhuni, Sikkhamana, or Samaneri from this day forth.”
– Phra Bancha Somdet Phra Sangharacha Jiao Gromluang Jinawarn Siriwad (18 June 2471)
An Official Announcement from the Sangha Committee Meeting minutes, Book 16 p157
It is sometimes said that this rule is promulgated under the ‘Sangha Act’ of 1928 – this is false, there is no such Act. I am not altogether sure of the exact legal status of the rule; it is authorized by the Sangharaja, who is not mentioned in the governing Sangha Act of the time, and is said to be an announcement from the minutes of the Sangha Committee. There is no doubt this was intended as a strict rule against bhikkhuni ordination at the time.
Of course, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Thailand became a democracy, and changed its Sangha Act twice. Our understanding of the Vinaya and the historical position of bhikkhunis has dramatically grown. I would give this edict some credit, for it does make a rational argument, unlike the recent statements from WPP, which eschew any attempt at a Vinaya argument and base themselves solely on power. However, the ruling makes a number of crucial factual errors:
1. The Pali Vinaya does not state that only a bhikkhuni can give samaneri ordination.
2. The Pali Vinaya explictly states that bhikkhus can give bhikkhuni ordination.
3. Bhikkhunis still exist through the Dharmaguptaka lineage in East Asia.
These mistakes are simple ones, yet they remain largely unacknowledged in the Thai Sangha.
A further problem with the rule is that it focuses on the preceptor (upajjhaya for monks, pavattini for bhikkhunis). In contemporary Thai culture, the preceptor is more or less regarded as the one responsible for the ordination, whereas in the Vinaya it is the Sangha as a whole. The way this is phrased, admittedly, both in the Vinaya and in modern usage, can be a bit vague, but this is the general tendency.
The rule appears to make it illegal for a bhikkhu to be the preceptor at a going forth for women. In the bhikkhuni ordination in the Pali Vinaya, however, the preceptor is not a bhikkhu, but a bhikkhuni – as the 1928 ruling itself acknowledges. So at the ordination in Perth, Ayya Tathaaloka was the preceptor, not Ajahn Brahm. The 1928 ruling forbids a bhikkhu from giving the ordination; since Ayya Tathaaloka is not a bhikkhu, and since Ajahn Brahm did not act as preceptor, there is no violation of this rule.
The essential issue here is that there is not a disagreement about the Vinaya procedures, but a historical difference. The framers of this rule were simply unaware of the existence of the Dharmaguptaka bhikkhuni lineage in the East Asian traditions.
Ironically enough, in the English Sangha, since its female ordination procedures do not follow the Vinaya, the preceptor is a bhikkhu. For the most part this has been Ajahn Sumedho. If we are to follow the 1928 ruling, any giving of the ‘going forth’ is illegal, and it would seem to be the English Sangha that has violated this law, not Ajahn Brahm. One could make the technical argument that the English siladhara are not samaneris – which is a very odd kind of argument to me, but I’ll leave that aside. In any case, are they considered to have ‘gone forth’? Basically, in Buddhism, you’re either ‘gone forth’ or a lay person. If they have ‘gone forth’ – which everyone in practice agrees they have – then for a bhikkhu to give that ordination is illegal under the 1928 ruling.
It is curious that this ruling makes samaneri ordination just as much of a problem as bhikkhuni ordination. It’s women in robes that is the worry, not bhikkhunis alone. This is quite different from the current climate of opinion, where the Dhammasara samaneris were considered no problem, as indeed are the samaneri-like siladharas in England. Even Ajahn Gunha, Ajahn Chah’s nephew, who is beloved and revered as a meditation master in his own right, ordained samaneris until he was forced by the local authorities to stop.
The legal status of the ruling is obscure. No-one, so far as I know, has tried to test this in court. When Voramai Kabilsingh was accused before the Mahatherasamakhom in 1956, her ‘crime’ was allegedly imitating a bhikkhu(!), not the fact that she had ordained as a samaneri. She was excused because her preceptor was a member of the Mahatherasamakhom(!) The same monk, Phra Prommuni, was also the teacher of the current king when he was ordained(!) Phra Prommuni argued that her light-yellow robe was a different color to that of the bhikkhus, so she was excused(!)
The legal situation was reviewed recently. The following is the most accurate account I have found, from ‘Making fields of merit: Buddhist female ascetics and gendered orders in Thailand’ by Monica Lindberg Falk, pg. 243.
Since October 2002, the bhikkhuni issue has been of special interest to the Thai Senate Committee on Women, Youth, and Elderly. The board of senators (upper house) set up a sub-committee led by a female senator, Rabiabrat Pongpanit, to investigate the possibility of establishing the bhikkhuni order in Thailand. A study group spent six months researching the topic. They found that the bhikkhuni order did not defy the principles of Buddhism. Senator Rabiabrat said the ban issued in 1928 by the Supreme Patriarch prohibiting monks from ordaining women as novices or female monks should be revoked because it violated the constitution, which enshrines gender equality and freedom of faith. Senator Rabiabrat and the senatorial sub-committee presented their study to the parliament on the 11 March 2003. The ensuing discussions with representatives of the Sangha council have so far not led to sanctioning of a bhikkhuni order in Thailand. The deputy prime minister has announced that the bhikkhuni issue is not a case for the secular constitution, but he has urged the Sangha’s Council of Elders to consider the bhikkhuni sangha. In February 2004 the National Buddhist Bureau stated in reply to the senate proposal that there can never be bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand due to the irretrievable loss in the lineage of Theravada bhikkhuni order and lack of a bhikkhuni preceptor.
So there has been research done, and, as always, when intelligent research is done by sympathetic people, they reach the obvious conclusion: bhikkhuni ordination can and should be reinstated. The ban clearly contradicts the spirit of the secular constitution. This is a fine point. The deputy prime minister said that the constitution should not decide the matter (which incidentally places the Thai Sangha in a peculiarly similar situation to the religious right in Australia). Nevertheless, the 1928 ruling is still, according to the opinion of the Senate inquiry, against the constitution and cannot stand. The deputy prime minister’s position, it would seem to me, does not imply that the 1928 ruling is legally valid. It merely opines that the decision on bhikkhuni ordination should not be decided by the constitution. If the 1928 ruling cannot stand, the matter must be considered again on its own merits and a solution found that is in accordance with the Constitution. Since the National Buddhist Bureau’s response merely restated the original position of the 1928 ruling, it too would be subject to the same constitutional criticism.
There is no hint of how the National Buddhist Bureau actually responded to the research done by the senate subcommittee. Again, I am not sure of the actual status of this statement, but in any case it is clearly not a ruling of the Mahatherasamakhom. I have heard from other sources that the real situation was that one group lobbied on behalf of the bhikkhuni order and another for a re-invigorated mae chi movement. In fact, neither of these eventuated, and the situation languishes undecided and unreformed.
So there we have it. An archaic rule, made by an absolutist patriarchy that saw fit to imprison women for the crime of ordaining, which is based on a misreading of the Vinaya and in ignorance of the historical situation, which has not been tested for 80 years, and which has been declared unconstitutional by the Thai Senate sub-committee as it clearly violates the basic principles of gender equity and freedom of religion.
This is the legal basis on which the WPP Sangha saw fit to expel Ajahn Brahm and his monastery.