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Ordained At Last

Just before dawn, bright spots of saffron and orange move slowly down the dim streets and low tones of chanting linger in the cool air. Thailand's estimated 300,000 monastics are out on morning rounds, cradling their alms bowls. Of these monastics, only three are women. One is the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, who has just become a bhikkhuni despite living in a country where such ordination of women is forbidden.

Tall for a Thai woman and a youthful fifty-eight, Dhammananda wears the saffron robes with grace. A dozen women walk behind her; they are mae chees-Thailand's white-robed renunciates who are considered neither lay nor monastic. On the quiet street a line of laypeople and children are waiting. They carefully place their gifts of food in Dhammananda's black metal bowl, then kneel on the ground and prostrate three times.

Two years ago, Dhammananda gave up her worldly life as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, an accomplished Buddhist scholar, author and university lecturer. Because Thailand's laws and Buddhist clergy forbid women to ordain as samaneris (novices) or bhikkhunis, Chatsumarn sought novice ordination in nearby Sri Lanka in March, 2001. Recently, she returned to Sri Lanka to receive full ordination, becoming Thailand's first Theravadin bhikkhuni.

"I had tasted everything-wealth, name, fame, whatever-and I knew what the extreme of it felt like," Dhammanda says. "During that time it was good, but you know, that's it. It's like when you have eaten something to the brim. If you eat more, you just vomit."

In Thailand, the problem with reviving a bhikkhuni order today stems from a vinaya rule requiring dual ordination: women must be ordained first by five bhikkhunis, then by five bhikkhus. Since no bhikkhunis exist in Thailand to perform the ceremony, no bhikkhunis can be ordained.

"The Buddha said very clearly that to live the life of the monks and nuns is a shortcut because you lessen your worldly burden. The monks always say, 'You can become enlightened, you don't have to be ordained.'" She assumes a high, polite voice: "'But why, your Reverend Sir, why are you ordained? And why are you not giving that opportunity to women?'"

From "Ordained At Last" by Kristin Barendsen. Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, Summer 2003.

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