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Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2001

On a quiet crusade to end a tradition of injustice


By MANDI JAMES
Special to The Japan Times

BANGKOK -- On the first lunar cycle of the first month of this year, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, an eminent Buddhist scholar, threw away her makeup, gave up eating meals after midday and relinquished the luxury of a comfortable bed. A month later, one day before the auspicious date of Buddha's holy Makhapuja Day, she made a trip to Sri Lanka, where she shaved off all her hair and was quietly ordained as a novice monk. A chapter of senior monks then signed a certificate of ordination, their venerable titles taking up most of the page, and the long-suppressed right of Thai women to become fully ordained monks ("bhikkhuni") moved a step closer toward realization. When Chatsumarn returned home to Bangkok a week later, all hell broke loose.

Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (right) discusses which plants would work best in the garden of her temple.

Meeting Chatsumarn, it's hard to believe that this soft-spoken woman swamped in brick-colored robes poses such a threat to the establishment. Yet religious-affairs officials have threatened to close her temple if it isn't properly registered or financial accounts are cloudy. The Thai military suspended interviews with her on their TV station, saying the issue of female monks could have a potentially undesirable impact on society. And, just to rub salt in the wound, the Sangha Supreme Council, Thailand's highest religious governing body, has refused to even acknowledge her existence. It may not amount to religious persecution but Chatsumarn is definitely being picked on.

On the bright side, the TV ban and the threats are nothing compared to what happened when Thai social critic Narin Kleung had his daughters ordained as novices in the 1920s. They were immediately arrested, quickly disrobed and temporarily jailed for their insolence. Backed by sensational press reports, an incensed clergy declared female ordination illegal in 1928. The religious path for Thai women ever since has been fraught with obstacles and social stigma. Those who express the wish to become ordained are accused of being greedy for status and recognition. Sometimes it's suggested that all a woman can do is hope to be reincarnated as a man in her next life. It's either that or opt for the lowly life of the "mae chi" (nun), who has little status in Thailand, is forced to beg on the street and exists in official limbo.

Chatsumarn working in her temple garden

"Many people asked me why didn't I become a mae chi," says Chatsumarn, speaking in the careful, measured tones of someone used to having her sentences scrutinized. "But I didn't want to because they are not ordained. If you want to live a monastic life then go into something that has academic support so at least you can argue your case. If I was a mae chi I wouldn't be able to defend myself."

Having written more than 40 books on Buddhism and taught Eastern philosophy at one of Thailand's leading universities for 27 years, Chatsumarn is more than capable of defending herself when it comes to theological debates. One of the few academics to study the dilemmas of ordained women, she has also experienced their struggle first hand.

Chatsumarn was raised in a candy-colored temple on the outskirts of Bangkok by her mother, the inimitable Voramai Kabilsingh. A former photojournalist, champion fencer and the first woman to cycle from Bangkok to Singapore, Voramai lost her status in society in 1959 when she donned the robes of the mae chi and was completely ostracized when she was eventually ordained in Taiwan in 1974. Recalling her mother's struggle and knowing that ordination meant true commitment and great suffering, Chatsumarn bucked against the idea most of her life. Instead she became a wife, a mother and one of the world's leading authorities on Buddhism.

"When I was a scholar, I always wanted to be objective because I was trained to understand that being subjective made your work less valid," explains Chatsumarn, pausing to collect her thoughts before she continues. "I separated myself from the world I was actually living in in order to be objective. Then it dawned on me I wasn't doing anything for social change. It was a turning point for me. After that I became an academic activist and them everything just followed on from there."

The decision to be ordained finally came two years ago after a long and drawn-out epiphany. What finally convinced her to make the leap of faith was nothing more spectacular than boredom. The real world just turned her off. "I can't really describe the process except to say it was like a Christian receiving a calling from God. I just felt it was time to leave the worldly path and to change. I used to be a very dressy type of a woman. I wore lots of makeup, I didn't like getting my hands dirty. But once I made the decision it was easy. I just let go and suddenly lost interest in all of it."

Once Chatsumarn had made up her mind, she started to loosen all her worldly ties. It wasn't just a case of relinquishing lipstick, shopping and getting her hair done. Chatsumarn also had to start detaching herself from the people around her -- colleagues, friends and family.

"It wasn't that hard breaking away from family life," she says gently. "When people ask me if I feel guilty leaving my children behind to struggle without me I have to say no, I don't. Life is a struggle. We come in this world alone, we leave alone, I just chose to break the bonds sooner, that's all. But when they have problems, we talk; I don't want them to feel completely empty. I like them to come and join the service on Sundays so they'll have some kind of spiritual anchor. I don't want them to get lost while I'm saving other souls."

Part of the process of letting go also involved divorcing her husband of some 30 years. "I thought divorce was important to lead a monastic life. I didn't want any confusion. I told my husband even before we were married that there was the possibility I may become ordained. He said we'd talk about it when the time came." She adds with a giggle, "I guess he didn't realize the time would come so soon."

Despite the fact that her three sons are now self-sufficient adults, Chatsumarn's decision to leave her family seems like an incredible sacrifice -- or an act of brutal selfishness, depending on which way you look at it. What is undeniable, though, is that the calm and gentle exterior of this 53-year-old belies the tenacious inner strength of an incredibly shrewd thinker.

Chatsumarn (top) gave up all aspects of worldly existence to follow her religious calling and make a new home at Watra Songdharmakalani.

Having relinquished her former life, Chatsumarn is now fully engaged in her quiet crusade to live her new one to the full, something the Sangha finds totally unacceptable. "Ordination is an option that's simply not available for Buddhist women in Thailand. The door is closed, the lock is rusted and the key is lost. Internationally, however, the demand for the full participation of women is very strong. It's a worldwide movement and Thailand can't reject it."

Rules for the ordination of women in Thailand are very strict, very specific and apparently non-negotiable. The Sangha insists on dual ordination, meaning five monks ("bhikkhunu") and five female monks ("bhikkhuni") must attend the ceremony. The twist in the tale is that the bhikkhuni must come from a pure Theravada lineage traced back to the time of Buddha, something that hasn't existed in Thailand for some 500 years. Fierce theological debates of the most confounding complexity have raged for months about whether it's possible for Thai women to become monks. The suggestion raised by Chatsumarn that the lineage can be kick-started by ordained sisters from overseas has been met by howls of protest. Last month, Buddhist scholars concluded the ordination of women in Thailand is "mission impossible." Rules are rules and that's that.

In reality, though, there are regulations monks no longer follow simply because they are simply not practical. There is also evidence of even the most basic precepts being ignored. Some fully ordained monks in Thailand collect tigers or vintage cars, enjoy smoking and, despite strict instructions about handling money, have bank accounts. Chatsumarn is eloquently calm and collected in the face of such frustrating hypocrisy.

"People complain monks aren't following the rules, but I think it's a reflection of Thai society as a whole. Ninety-five percent of the population believe themselves to be Buddhist but very few of them really understand what Buddha taught, even fewer of them observe the precepts. The state of the Sangha is the state of the population as a whole."

For all its huffing and puffing, the Thai Sangha is in a state of crisis, and the presence of women could probably help it regain its credibility. Rocked in recent years by a series of scandals involving monks who have committed fraud, rape and even murder, a recent survey estimated that at least 10 percent of bhikkhunu were seriously addicted to methamphetamines. Faced with its latest dilemma, the Sangha is edging dangerously close to violating basic human rights. Although no moves have been made to physically disrobe Chatsumarn, the Sangha's stubborn stance on the ordination of women and refusal to revise its rules contravenes the Thai Constitution -- which states in Article 38 that citizens should enjoy equal representation irrespective of origin, sex or religion.

It's not all grim news, though. Chatsumarn has as many supporters as detractors. The Dalai Lama advocates female ordination, and thanks to the evolution of the women's movement worldwide it's no longer a taboo subject. Closer to home, the army-run Channel 5 may have banned her from its TV screens, but several other channels have invited her along for interviews, where she has articulated her case eloquently and charmed skeptical audiences. Her lone crusade against the fusty old patriarchy has caught the public's imagination and Chatsumarn has become something of a media icon in Thailand. Not exactly the chosen path for someone who wished to devote the rest of her life to meditative contemplation, but she bears her new role under the media spotlight with good grace and feels her spiritual resolve has been strengthened by recent events.

It's this disarming self-belief and absolute conviction that has gradually endeared Chatsumarn to the public. A small community has already evolved around her temple, Watra Songdharmakalani. Her mother, now 94 and bedridden, lives upstairs. Mae chi pad around the grounds barefoot. Young girls whose families cannot afford their upkeep run simple errands in return for food, shelter and an education. Sunday services are packed out and the temple has become a focal point for families and single women from miles around. Despite all the controversy, Chatsumarn is fully focused on her duties. In between the requisite studying, meditation and praying, she has a project for unwed mothers called Baan Santi Rak, runs her own magazine and has a constant stream of visitors seeking advice, guidance or just a sympathetic ear. For someone who doesn't officially exist, Chatsumarn is leading an incredibly active life.

"I don't think Thai women will rise up and ordain en masse should things ever change. A monastic path is not a comfortable lifestyle," she says with a wry smile. "But I'm thinking of starting up a small religious community which helps women develop their own spirituality and contribute something to society. As an academic activist, I found that women struggle everywhere no matter what religion they are. I find comfort in the fact I am not alone."

Mandi James is a freelance journalist in Bangkok.


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