Towards the 3rd Decade: Bhikkhunis in the Thai Society, 11 December 2022 By Samaneri Dhammavaci

11.12.2022, indeed, it is another long day.

Today we are celebrating the 20th vassa of our teacher, Venerable Dhammananda. Would it be just another official event to mark a title/ a status of ‘Mahatheri’, or what does it mean exactly? I am not entirely sure.

The event started with my teacher’s explanation on the meaning of the picture of a bhikkhu (monk) and a Bodhi tree which might have puzzled most of the audience and passersby. I had walked past this painting at our monastery the other day as the painter was finishing it. I had asked him what it was all about. The answer sounded more or less like a propaganda to me. A monk’s dream about a dead 1,000-year-old Bodhi tree coming back to life was now associated to the revival of Theravada bhikkhunis in Thailand. How could one person’s dream herald a phenomenon?

My attention, hence, was not on such a bedtime story but the way it was told on the stage. If my teacher were not in the holy yellow robe, people could have mistaken her for a veteran thespian. Not every day nor in every monastery would you find a teacher who could step onto the stage and speak like she was casting a spell. With her voice, her tone, her gestures, I felt that my teacher was not talking about a dream. She was telling a truth.

Towards the 3rd decade of bhikkhunis in Thailand, yes, things seem much more possible. Just today we saw three men pledging to support establishment of bhikkhunis in this country; including the Most Venerable B. Sri Saranankara Maha Nayaka Maha Thera, Chief High Priest Judiciary of Malaysia (originally Sri Lankan); Pra Rajavisudhiprajanath, the renown saint of Prabad Nampu Temple, widely praised for his charity works for over 30 years; and Venerable Dr. Sudhammanath of Plak Mai Lai Temple, the bhikkhu in the dream picture who has been an ally to our monastery and who has been giving ‘ovada’ (instruction) to our bhikkhunis for years. We also received commitment from the Fourfold Buddhists Association to include bhikkhunis in all its activities in which bhikkhus would be present. Many things look promising. Yet I would just wait and see if words would turn into actions before I fully buy all this good news.

Around 5 pm, the long day finally came to an end and all I could think of was my evening drink. We, samaneris and a few bhikkhunis, were escorted to the escalators to go down to the ground floor and leave the building. This was not the plan but it took too long to wait for the elevators. The sight of an endless line of samaneris/bhikkhunis, which, all of a sudden, appeared right in the middle of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, seemed so out of place. Head turned and eyes questioned. Most faces looked blank as if the brains could not quite figure out who were in front of them. I sort of enjoyed the attention though, like, yeah, folks, we are bhikkhunis/samaneris! We do exist! Behold us!

Then, among the clueless crowd stood one young woman, smiling, two palms pressed together on her chest, forming a humble ‘wai’. Even from across the hall, I could feel how glad she was to be there, receiving and paying respect to us, as if she had been waiting for this for ages. I slightly bowed to her. Her happy smile got even broader as she saw that I (and perhaps other samaneris/bhikkhunis) noticed her and acknowledged the respect she was offering to all of us. But I did not. It was, in fact, the other way around. I bowed to her with equal respect, if not more, and deep gratitude for enlightening me.

Now it dawns on me what today is all about; what my teacher’s hard work for the past 20 years and the path she has paved for us mean; why there have always been fourfold Buddhist communities in all Buddhas’ eras and why we should keep it that way. The reestablishment and existence of bhikkhunis matter. Even if there is merely one lost soul out there who may be saved by or who may rejoice in seeing or joining the bhikkhunis sangha as a way to end her sufferings in this world or as the way to ultimately leave the samsara for nirvana, she should have this choice.

Then I realise how much I have taken things for granted; be it the civara (robe) I am wearing, the roof over my head and the food I have been fed during my ordination, and all the Buddhism and monastic training I have been receiving. None of these would have ever been possible, if not for one woman’s fight, my teacher’s, for the past 20 years, against all odds, for the ground no other women dare reclaiming. Today at the event, my teacher clarified the original Pali definition of “Bodhisatta”, i.e. “the Brave One”. I think she has shown us the meaning of the word long before she explained it.

More than a week into my 3rd round of ordination, today I still cannot get used to all the strict codes of conduct imposed upon all of us in our monastery right down to how we walk, sit, eat and drink; how we adorn our robe and hold our bowl; how early we need to be for classes and meetings; how we arrange seating according to the monastic hierarchy; and many more. These are in addition to the education on Dhamma, Tripitaka, meditation, and so forth. On this very day of 11 December 2022 when so many bhikkhunis and samaneris from near and far gather to honour my teacher, I could observe their behaviors, manners and knowledge, and I could never thank my teacher enough for every single thing she has been teaching and training us. The Most Venerable Saranankara said that, after all these years, there have only been a handful of bhikkhunis in Malaysia. In Thailand, my teacher has ordained and trained almost 1,000 samaneris in the past 20 years. Those fresh shoots coming out of the dead Bodhi tree in one monk’s dream might not be just a dream after all.

The fact is it has never been about a dream. “I don’t dream about it. I do it,” answered my teacher in the video presentation at the event today, when asked what dream she had for the 3rd decade of bhikkhunis in the Thai society. In Buddhism, we do not dream or make a wish. Instead, we get the cause right to achieve the right result/consequence, or so I have been taught.

Today we are all here to celebrate Thailand’s first Theravada Mahatheri. At this very moment, I have come to know what this is all about and what it really means for me.

With all my heart, I “vanda” my teacher, Venerable Dhammananda Mahatheri, the Brave One, the Light.

Towards the 3rd decade of bhikkhunis in Thailand, the toughest part of the path has been paved for us. The next chapter is our responsibility.

The Bodhi tree has indeed come back to life. It will be here to stay and grow!