She enters the meditation-hall and let's her cushion be changed for a chair. Dhammananda says with a smile: 'I can't sit on the cushion, as according to the Vinaya (the rules for the sangha) pupils are not allowed to sit higher than the teacher.' That is typical of Dhammananda. In reality she doesn't really mind how she and the rest of the sangha sits. But she is aware that one photo of her in a wrong position could be used against her. And that also shows who she is: she doesn't ask us to sit on the floor, she accommodates herself. In 2001 she received the bhikkhuni (nun) ordination in Sri Lanka and now she leads the first Bhikkhuni Sangha in Thailand.
Before her ordination she was a professor. Dhammananda resigned to enter the nunnery. She asked her husband for a divorce, and to make her ordination possible she also needed permission of her sons. It required a long preparation to follow in the footsteps of her mother Voramai. Voramai had been a bhikkhuni in the Mahayana tradition since 1971, and built the temple where Dhammananda is the current abbot. She died in 2001, the year her daughter was ordained. 'My mother never asked me to take over from her. But the people around us did expect me to take this path. Initially I was very resistant. I didn't feel engaged enough to want ordination. I've lived a worldly life with all that entails. it has proved a good preparation, as the desire for the world has disappeared. One day i looked in the mirror, before putting on my make-up, and asked myself for how long I would still be doing that. Suddenly I turned away from worldly interests. After that my choice for ordination followed. Yes, it was beautiful. I felt no pressure.'
Her passport still states her name as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, as she isn't recognised as a bhikkhuni in Thailand. She relates: 'In Thailand it's forbidden to ordain women as bhikkhunis. There lies a story in how this came to be. The Buddha gave monks the authority to ordain women. Up until the arrival of a very shy woman. She did not dare answer the usual questions about her sexuality – for example whether or not she has normal genitals and if she was pregnant. The monks went to the Buddha for advise. He asked them, very practically, why in the case of women's concerns they didn't get the bhikkhunis to ask the questions. That's how dual ordination came into being. And within the Theravada tradition the rule is that a woman must first be ordained by five bhikkhunis followed by ordination taken from a minimum of five bhikkhus (monks). And there are no nuns in Thailand. This doesn't have to mean that women could not be ordained here. In the beginning that also happened. But the monks in Thailand hold tightly to the rule. That is why I received my ordination abroad.
Dhammananda suspects the official sangha of another reason for not grabbing hold of the opportunity to restore the women's-sangha. ' Ordination has become a matter of power. At some point the King introduced a system which rewarded good monks with money and a position. Now when you climb the hierarchical structure, you can look forward to profit. When as a woman you seek ordination, you enter the very sensitive area of power, whether you want to or not. But that is not the original Buddhism, that's not how the Buddha meant it!
She explains that in 2003 a senator advised the Thai government to recognise and support the Bhikkhuni Sangha. From his research it became clear that this would cause no harm to the sangha. The government sent this document to the highest sangha-council. They answered that they would prefer to stick with the law dating back to 1928. Here it states emphatically that women can not be ordained. 'It sounds as if they didn't read any of the research', says Dhammananda.
Though she is not fully accepted, she is not worried. 'Our Prime Minister has stated clearly that I'm not breaking the law with what I'm doing. No one can harm us.
This is the third wave of women. The first were stripped of their robes and thrown in jail. The second wave, my mother, was allowed to stay but was looked upon as being mahayana – a tradition which separated of the theravada tradition. This time we come as theravada. And we come to stay. We shall continue to concern ourselves with those issues in society to which no one pays attention. More and more women will choose to be ordained. Eventually the monks will give in. Why should they oppose something which is of such benefit to society?'
By now there are 40 ordained women in Thailand. 'I pray they are sincere, as there are women who enter the sangha for different reasons. They have not received an education, they see this as a safe haven and enjoy being bowed to. There will be women among them who don't really know what a nun is suppose to do. Much has to happen before there is a strong women's sangha. In the meantime the whole country is watching us. When a bhikkhuni makes a mistake, it will be used as an excuse to undermine us.'
In the past Dhammananda only wanted to ordain women for life. 'But I've changed my mind. I make temporary ordination available to any woman who wants to experience this. For men it is all very accessible, they can enter daily – temporarily or for life. And now that the women start off, we make it so difficult for them.' Her aim is to normalise ordination for women. 'Maybe only one in a hundred women will take on a monastic lifestyle, but people will get used to the idea that women are ordained. That's a tactical change.
She has noticed that already women are more accepted. For instance it is now possible for a woman to teach monks at the university. Though according to the 8 rules the Buddha once gave to bhikkhuni's, they would not be allowed to teach, instruct or criticise monks. 'At the university the monks called me professor, for them that's what I continue to be also after my ordination, since I've stopped teaching. There are monks who are pure in their practice, they support me. Naturally I follow the rules but I don't follow anything blindly. The Buddha was very clear in the Kalama Sutta: you put the teachings into practice and judge for yourself if it works.'