About 95 percent of Thailand’s population practices Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism, one of the oldest sects that most closely follows the original teachings of the Buddha. There are some 300,000 monks across the country who serve as leaders, teachers, and role models for these many adherents, all the while seeking their own spiritual enlightenment.
Because of the faith’s widespread popularity, Buddhism’s ruling monastic council — the sangha — wields enormous influence over the Thai government, and monks receive a handful of benefits from the state, like stipends and tax exemptions.
But Thai women have been banned from Theravada monasticism for centuries. Although the Buddha himself spoke of the importance of both male and female monks, modern authorities point to a technicality in the teachings that states only female monks can ordain other women. But the lineage of female monks died out in the 11th century — ironically, due to a rash of sexism and harassment that discouraged new devotees. Therefore, the modern-day male-dominated sangha claims no new women can take the cloak.
But one determined believer found a loophole: In 2003, 59-year-old Chatsumarn Kabilsingh traveled to Sri Lanka, where ordaining Buddhist women had been recently sanctioned. She returned home as the Venerable Dhammananda, modern Thailand’s first female Theravada monk.
Today, Dhammananda is the most senior monk at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery — the first center for female monks and still one of only 20 exclusively female monasteries in the country.
“It is our intention,” the now 73-year-old told Broadly, “to provide a place for all women to come, to practice, and to feel at home.”
They aren’t without setbacks: The sangha rejects the women as merely “imposters,” and one women’s meditation center was attacked by arsonists. But this new wave of female spiritual leaders persists and have increasingly garnered the respect of their local communities.
“When I see men being so upset at the fact that women are ordained monks, I look at them, I smile, and I do whatever I want to do anyway,” one female monk told The Huffington Post.
Dhammananda says she hopes to start a female council to govern the Buddhist population alongside the male one.
“Enlightenment is the quality of mind that goes beyond. There is no gender there,” Dhammananda told PRI. “When you talk about the supreme spiritual goal in Buddhism, it’s genderless.”
Below, check out the latest monastic recruits as they go through ordination at Dhammananda’s Songdhammakalyani Monastery: