The rebel women defying a powerful all-male clergy to become Buddhist monks

Under towering palms and frangipani trees on her farm in rural Thailand, Achara Ratanakasin hacks away at the tangled undergrowth with swift machete strokes.

Soon such work will be forbidden.

Tomorrow Achara is heading to a monastery to start a two-year journey to become a bhikkhuni – the ancient Indian term for a fully-ordained, female, Buddhist monk – where she will vow to never again kill a living thing.

It’s the last time she’ll be able to work like this on the property she built with her late husband Tom.

“I decided to be a bhikkhuni because I felt like I had had enough with my life,” she tells Foreign Correspondent.

“I don’t mean in terms of giving up my life. I have such a good life and enjoy my life every day, but then there are times that I feel suffering a lot after I lost my husband.”

Achara on her farm with a machete.
Achara Ratanakasin plans to leave her farm in the care of her niece.(Foreign Correspondent: Mazoe Ford)

Achara might feel ready for monastic life, but her goal to become a fully ordained monk puts her in sharp conflict with Thailand’s religious authorities.

In Thailand, only men are permitted to be ordained as monks and don the saffron robes, but there’s a growing movement among Buddhist women to challenge this rule.

Women have found a loophole and are holding ordination ceremonies of their own in defiance of Thailand’s powerful all-male clergy.

While her ordination won’t be officially recognised by the country’s top Buddhist authority, Achara is pressing on with her plan to join the monkhood.

The 60-year-old’s devotion to Buddhism has been steadily growing since finding solace in the Buddha’s teachings after her husband Tom died suddenly of a heart attack eight years ago.

Achara Ratanakasin became a widow eight years ago when her husband Tom died suddenly.(Supplied)

Standing on their farm amid tropical fruit trees as the Sun shimmers over the lake, she is preparing to walk out and close the gate for the final time.

“I love this place and I said to myself, ‘How am I going to walk away from what you love?'” she says.

“This is the most difficult bit … to go from something, to having nothing.

“[But] Buddha said become a monk. It’s like you become like a beggar … and I think I look forward to my new life. I’m ready for that.”

Having a mid-life crisis

Wanida “Anne” Lertpanyawai, 43, is another Thai woman leaving a comfortable life to be ordained as a novice monk.

Anne enjoys her job in life insurance in Bangkok and loves her husband, family and friends, but lately she has been searching for more meaning.

“Every single day you get up at 5:30am, you put on your make-up, get dressed, go out, drive to work, and clock in, clock out,” she says.

“After doing that life for many years, I just think like, ‘What’s the next chapter? What is the new journey of my life?’

“And when I turned 40 and COVID came along, after that I kind of think, ‘Oh yeah, I’m probably having a mid-life crisis.'”

Anne Lertpanyawai, pictured here with her husband Tee, plans to be ordained temporarily as a novice monk.(Foreign Correspondent: Dave Maguire)

Ninety-five per cent of Thailand’s population is Therevada Buddhist, but Anne comes from a Christian family.

After her father died in an accident 20 years ago, a friend took her to a temple for the first time, then seven years ago she married a Buddhist man, Vitune “Tee” Kanyapipat .

Over the years Anne’s interest in Buddha’s teachings has grown.

“It’s probably the only thing that I believe that can make me a better person in some way,” she says. “Self-development process starts with his teachings.”

Anne is heading to the same all-female monastery as Achara, about 40 minutes west of Bangkok, but will stay only 12 days.

She plans to ordain temporarily as a novice monk, something very few Thai women have done.

Anne’s husband Tee, who ordained as a monk temporarily before their wedding, admits he was “stunned at first” when Anne told him of her plan.

He had never heard of a woman doing it.

“I was shocked and then I asked, how long will she be ordained for?” Tee says. “But after she told me it was just a short course, I was OK. It was OK to let her go and study.”

Offending the Buddha

If Anne was male, none of this would be remarkable – men are ordained as monks for short periods all the time in Thailand.

It is a rite of passage and a way to bring merit to their families for longer and happier lives.

Women in white gowns holding incense.
Women prepare to trade their white garments for the distinctive saffron robes seen almost exclusively on male monks.(Supplied: Wat Songdhammakalyani)

Achara’s decision to seek full ordination would not be unusual if she was male either — fully ordained male monks are part of the fabric of daily life in Thailand.

From the back alleys of Bangkok to the rural roads of the provinces, they can be seen at dawn every day on their morning alms rounds, offering Thai people simple blessings in exchange for food and other essentials.

There are around 240,000 male monks, but only a few hundred women.

The governing body for monks, the Supreme Sangha Council, refuses to recognise them and says female monks have never existed in Thailand, so they cannot be introduced.

“The monk’s law doesn’t recognise them. Therefore, they can’t be ordained,” says Phra Thamkittimetee from the Buddhist Protection Society of Thailand.

“If they are ordained, it is considered an offence, even an offence to the Buddha.”

Advocates for female monks argue they are trying to restore a long-lost female monastic order started by the Lord Buddha himself when he ordained his own stepmother in India.

Phra Thamkittimetee says ordaining female monks is an “offence to the Buddha”.(Foreign Correspondent: Dave Maguire)

Phra Thamkittimetee acknowledges the Buddha did that, and also ordained other women in India, but he says that does not change the fact that there is no history of female monks in Thailand.

“One thing Buddha commanded was that a bhikkhuni must be ordained by a bhikkhuni first, then after that the monks could chant the proclamation,” he says.

“In Thailand it is considered that there are no bhikkhuni, [so] with the absence of bhikkhuni, monks cannot ordain women to become bhikkhuni.”

The first known attempt to introduce female monks in Thailand was in the late 1920s when an outspoken critic of the clergy had his two daughters ordained.

The Supreme Sangha Council was infuriated.

The sisters were arrested and defrocked, and the council banned Thailand’s male monks from ordaining women, a ban that is still in place almost a hundred years on.

Blazing the path to female ordination

Anne and Achara are not discouraged though.

They are heading to Wat Songdhammakalyani, Thailand’s first all-female monastery and one not recognised by the religious authorities.

Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni was the first Thai woman to travel to Sri Lanka to be ordained, allowing her to ordain other women as novice monks. (Foreign Correspondent: Dave Maguire)

The abbess is the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the first Thai woman to be fully ordained as a Theravada Buddhist monk.

When Thailand’s clergy refused to ordain her, she went to Sri Lanka for the ceremony where male monks are willing to ordain women.

“I spent long, more than two decades, you know, feeling this strange loneliness, not fitting in the world until the time when I was ordained,” Dhammananda says.

“It was the most meaningful part of my life.”

Before taking on her religious name, Dhammananda was known as Chatsumarn Kabilsingh.

The idea of becoming ordained didn’t occur to her until she was in her 50s.

She was happily married with grown-up children, was a professor of religion and philosophy at one of Thailand’s top universities and had even become a TV personality for her expertise.

“But then one day when I was putting on make-up [and] there was inner voice, like another person asking, how long do I have to do this?” Dhammananda says.

A woman looks at the camera.
Before taking on her religious name, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni was known as Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a university professor and TV expert.(Supplied)

“That was the time when I made this decision. That kind of lifestyle, that success in lay life, success in building up wealth and glory in life. Very colourful. Very beautiful. Enough.”

She went to Sri Lanka for two ceremonies: the first to become a novice monk in 2001, and then for full ordination in 2003.

It was a momentous time for Dhammananda, but the Thai clergy was not impressed.

“When she came back, she was fiercely attacked by the clergy and people who didn’t really understand what she’s trying to do,” says Sanitsuda Ekachai, a Thai journalist who writes extensively about Thai Buddhism.

“The clergy saw her move as a challenge of their power and they couldn’t accept women as equals.”

Ekachai says sexism is deeply rooted in Thai culture and organised religion is not free from that.

“Buddhism in Thailand is tainted by this cultural belief that women are lower than men, socially and spiritually,” she says.

“It is a totally male-dominated system… an old boys’ club, run by old boys who live in the past and want to maintain it that way because it’s the system that maintains their power.”

A woman's head is shaved.
Dhammananda has her head shaved during her ordination ceremony in Sri Lanka.(Supplied)

Temples for male monks are given substantial funds by the Thai government. And boys who enter the monkhood receive a free education, making it a path out of poverty for many.

Male monks are given special ID cards and can travel for free on public transport.

Thai women can become nuns dressed in white robes, known as maechi, but they’re not held in the same esteem as monks, receive no financial assistance, and cannot be fully ordained.

Phra Thamkittimetee says the monkhood is not sexist, but he worries about temptations that might arise if women come into the fold.

“Even though it is completely forbidden, there are still many bad incidents of monks being involved with women,” he says.

“If they were to be in the same temple, could they be prevented from being together?

“Sometimes women can’t suppress their temptation and search of sex.

Women in white garments.
Candidates prepare for ordination as novice monks at Wat Songdhammakalyani, Thailand’s first all-female monastery.(Supplied: Wat Songdhammakalyani)

“And male monks, if they can’t get rid of their lust and they forget the monastic disciplines, they’ll eventually end up having sex. That will taint the religion’s image.”

In recent years, Thailand has been rocked by a string of lurid saffron scandals, with sex or temple fraud at the centre of most.

Monk numbers have dropped by around 50,000 in recent years too.

Dhammananda believes the way to restore public faith in Buddhism and grow the religion is to work together, but she says the Supreme Sangha Council won’t engage with her.

“They should appreciate what I do, but I’m afraid from a distance they might see me as this outspoken nun, this very strong character,” she says.

“Because in our culture, Thai women are very quiet and we are very tame. And I’m also sweet, but I’m not tame.”

Donning the saffron robes

At Dhammananda’s monastery, Anne and Achara join 11 other candidates for their ordination ceremony.

It starts with the women seeking forgiveness from their families.

The women’s hair is cut and their heads are shaved to symbolise their rejection of ego and possessions.

A woman kneels down before another woman.
Anne asks her family for forgiveness during her ordination. (Foreign Correspondent: Dave Maguire)
A woman's hair it cut.
Achara’s hair is cut during her ordination, a symbol of her rejection of ego and possessions.(Supplied: Wat Songdhammakalyani)

The ceremony lasts for several hours, with the women committing to uphold the teachings of the Buddha and changing into saffron robes.

It is the most important day of their spiritual journeys so far.

“I have changed, and I am now become a daughter of Lord Buddha,” Anne says after the ceremony.

“Every single moment after this, I need to be careful the [of] way I think, the way I say, the way I act. I need to be a good representative of Buddhism. I will try.”

The day after the ordination, the 13 newly ordained women head out at daybreak on their morning alms rounds, offering Thai people simple blessings in exchange for food and other essentials. 

The community around Dhammananda’s monastery has embraced the women in saffron robes.

Two women in saffron monks' robes.
Anne and Achara in their saffron robes after ordination as novice monks.(Foreign Correspondent: Dave Maguire)

“I keep telling [the candidates] that you are part of this movement that is going to be written down in the history, that we are on the right side of history,” says Dhammananda.

After another week, Anne returns to her daily life, but hopes to ordain temporarily again in the future.

Achara remains determined to travel to Sri Lanka for full ordination in two years’ time.

“I think I’ve got to go. Whatever it takes, I will do it,” she says.

Watch Foreign Correspondent tonight at 8pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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