Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Thai Sangha Treats Women as Untouchables

A Buddhist scholar from England last week accused Theravada Buddhists in Thailand of being "incredibly uninterested" in studying the words of the Buddha, and said the "most pernicious and dangerous" effect of this neglect is "the scornful treatment of women." Richard Gombrich, founder and president of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, said the Thai Sangha "had taken the extremely retrograde step" of not allowing monks to take anything from a woman's hand, a prohibition neither justified by Buddhist texts nor proscribed even in Sri Lanka where Theravada is also the tradition.

Gombrich made these remarks during his keynote address at a conference in Bangkok on Buddhism and the World Economic Crisis which coincided with the 96th birthday of the Supreme Patriarch of the Thai Sangha. Saying he felt his "paramount duty is to speak the truth as I see it," Gombrich described himself as "a fervent admirer and deeply disappointed well-wisher" of Buddhism. The Oxford don has studied, taught and written about Pali and Sanskrit texts for nearly fifty years, and he suggested that Theravadin Buddhists were ignorant of what the Buddha taught because they ignored the Pali canon.
There is ample empirical evidence that most Thai Buddhists think that making donations to monks and temples is far more meritorious than keeping the five precepts which the Buddha formulated for them. They think this because it is what they have been taught...Showing respect for the Buddha is not sticking gold leaf on a statue, it is respecting his words, the Dhamma.
The treatment of women as lesser than men is a holdover from the Hindu caste system which the Buddha rejected. "If we read the Pali Canon," Gombrich told the gathering of monks and laypeople, "there cannot be any doubt that the Buddha regarded women as spiritually equal to men." In Thailand, he said, particularly in the north, "women are not allowed to circumambulate stupas because their inherent impurity will destroy the power of the relic within. Monks may not come into contact with a woman, even a girl baby or a woman in her nineties." They are "being treated by monks exactly as are untouchables in traditional Hinduism."

Women cannot legally become nuns in Thailand because, according to the official reasoning, the ordination succession for nuns died out here a long time ago. Some women, like the Ven. Dhammananda, have gone to Sri Lanka or Taiwan where ordinations of women are allowed, but they are not recognized as nuns by the Thai Sangha. "All that prevents it is the attitude of those who hold power," Gombrich said. "What is more important: that women be allowed to live as Buddhist nuns if they so desire, or that the Sangha adhere to a rule about ordination procedure?"

The applause for Gombrich's speech seemed lukewarm. In the hall afterward, I heard the words "impolite" and "arrogant," referring to an academic who would dare criticize the Thai Sangha on the occasion of its leader's birthday celebration. I, however, found his blunt words refreshing, and they rang true for me. While no religion treats women as the equals of men (and I saw ample evidence of that in my Catholic past), I was shocked when I came here to learn that many Thai women believe that only male monks can achieve enlightenment. Thais as a whole focus more on making merit to obtain a good rebirth rather than practicing meditation to seek the awakening that the Buddha taught was available to all. In my experience, women are far more numerous in Thai temples than men, just as they also appear to dominate Christian congregations despite their often second-class status. Gombrich was speaking of Theravadin countries when he observed that "women are far more conspicuously pious than men...it is women who seem to keep the religion alive." I think it might be universal.

This weekend marked the end of Pansa, the three-(lunar) month rainy season retreat that is sometimes called Buddhist Lent. There were religious processions in different cities, even a water-buffalo race in Isaan, and the Naga fireballs rose on cue from the Mekong River near Nong Khai. Sunday was Wan Phra -- Monk Day -- and a full moon one at that. Flower sellers were plying their trade on the sidewalks. We bought a plastic bucket of goodies (toothpaste, tea, etc.) the night before at Tesco Lotus for our donation to the temple. Going out before 7 the next morning, we first purchased some food from a stall and gave it to three young monks on pindabat up Boromratchonannonee (I've never got figured out how to spell this tongue-twister) Road. Then we went in search of lotus buds at the morning market on Charoensanitwong several blocks away. Though they seemed in short supply, we eventually found a dozen of them. From there it was a short walk to Wat Ruak Bangbamru. I expected a special celebration because of the confluence of important dates, but I was surprised to find a large market within the precinct of the temple. There was little space to walk and everything, from close to fresh meat, was on sale. I thought about Jesus and the money changers in the Jewish temple, but decided that offering space to poor people attempting to earn a living is a good use of religious property. People on motorbikes pushed their way through the crowd and you had to watch your back. Everywhere monks were accepting gifts of food, flowers and money from kneeling devotees (there is no other word to describe the attitude of laypeople to monks). Inside a small cottage at a corner of the temple compound, an old monk in a wheel chair was accepting donations. Nan and I put our gift bucket and a few lotus buds on a small piece of cloth so the monk could avoid being contaminated by a woman (it's OK for me to hand it to him directly). While not particularly busy, there was a steady stream of donors presenting a variety of gifts. Afterward, we returned home with a few lotus buds which Nan opened and put in a glass below our Buddha icon which we keep festooned with flowers.

In the afternoon we went to pay our respects to the King at Siriraj Hospital, one stop up the Chao Phraya River from Pinklao Bridge, a short bus ride from our apartment. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, at 81 the world's longest reigning monarch, has been hospitalized for two weeks with an unspecified ailment, perhaps pneumonia. All of the official announcements have been upbeat, the King is getting better, he can eat and sleep, he's off antibiotics, the inflammation has lessened. He's also receiving therapy, but no reason is given. It's rumored he has Parkinson's, and he has looked weak in rare public appearances during the last two years. Talking about what happens when the King dies is taboo in Thailand (the Independent in London has an informative article on the subject) and the upcoming succession is the elephant in the room whenever Thai politics are discussed. There have been a flurry of rumors about the Crown Prince in Germany recently and I've seen a photo from a German newspaper taken at a festival where he is wearing jeans and a tee shirt (at home he is only photographed in full dress uniform), accompanied by a Thai girl who dies not resemble his (third and current) wife. Printing that photo in Thailand would merit a long jail sentence. His father the King is revered by Thais and I wanted to go to the hospital to pray for his recovery and the well-being of Thailand. Nan and I were ushered into a large room with many tables and guest books, and we each signed our name. Outside there were small groups of people before a shrine in front of a statue of the King's father, Mahidol Adulyadej, a doctor who is regarded as the father of modern medicine and public health in Thailand. Some people sat holding pictures of the King and others scanned the surrounding buildings for signs of where the King might be staying.

The political scene in Thailand at the moment is confusing to say the least. Of course I can only read the English press, but Bangkok Pundit and affiliated web sites keep me somewhat informed. The political coalition of Prime Minister Abhisit seems to be unraveling and his powerful backers close to the palace and the military may be pulling the plug. His attempt to appoint a new national police chief was apparently thwarted (though his nominee is now "acting" chief) and a close aide to the PM resigned. The courts come up with indictments and acquittals that many see as politicized decisions. A series of industrial projects were put on hold for supposedly environmental reasons and Abhisit claims that tourism, suffering from last year's airport closing as well as the poor economy, will take up the slack (which no one believes). One current project is amending the constitution written by the military after the 2006 coup which might being it closer to the popular "people's charter" passed in 1997. The voters, whose electoral choices have been denied time and again, will probably get to vote on changes in a referendum. One good source for information is Chang Noi's occasionally column (the pen name is believed to shield historian Chris Baker) in The Nation. Most recently he wrote that the old discredited power and money politics have returned with a vengeance.

Yesterday I delivered my first PowerPoint talk to the comparative religions study group organized by expat volunteers from the National Museum. The subject was "What is 'Religion'?" and I was the first to speak. There will be three presentations at each meeting for six weeks. After me, Jean-Pierre spoke on "Founders and Prophets," and Tracy talked about "Sacrifice" with photos of rituals from her visits to Indonesia. I don't know why I've taken so long to learn PowerPoint; it was great fun putting the talking points together with photos, and not all that different from writing this blog, a kind of creative assemblage. The nucleus of my presentation was a talk I gave perhaps fifteen years ago at UC Santa Cruz on "The End of 'Religion'." I used ideas from Clifford Geertz, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Jonathan Z. Smith, and emphasized that the term "religion" was a 19th century invention by academics, as well as elites in Asia attempting to resist Christian missionary efforts by showing they already had a "religion." But I gathered new data, particularly from Pascal Boyer's fascinating book, Religion Explained, which Jimmy had recommended to me at the first group meeting. And I also downloaded a transcript of Terry Gross' NPR interview with Karen Armstrong two weeks ago that provided a more positive slant for the ending. Boyer believes we're hard-wired for religion beliefs and ritual activities but that this does not prove the existence of non-observable "transcendent" entities and agencies. Armstrong thinks the essence of religion is compassion, and I certainly agree that this is an admirable goal. I can't help comparing religious observance in the west unfavorably with the popular piety I have experienced up close in India and here in Thailand. But I am incapable of such complete submission to the spirit of the universe. Which means I must remain always outside as an admirer and often skeptical well-wisher.

And now for something completely different:


Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

"Monks may not come into contact with a woman."

It seems to me that if monks make vows of celibacy then it's a pretty good thing that society expects them to have no physical contact with women.

Sure, there are problems with how things are organised in Thailand regarding female ordination and I fully support their demand for equality within soiety and the Sangha, but monks not having close contact with women does not necessarily have to mean women having a secondary role.

In the book Admonitions to Myself by the Venerable Korean Master Ya-un (circa 1300-1392), he writes "treat beautiful women as you would poisonous snakes or tigers". It means simply that monks must keep out of the way of temptation and keep their hands to themselves. Good advice.

And today in Korea there are many female nuns and the Zen Master at the head of the lineage I took refuge in is female.

Just expecting monks to keep their hands to themselves does not automatically lead to women having a secondary place, and I for one think that the tradition of Thai monks not being able to physically touch a woman is a good one.

Thank you for another interesting blog post Will.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post.

I used to have profound respect for the Thai tradition. I can't comprehend how anyone can be liberated while at the same time mistreat another being. In their treatment on women, I know with certainty that the Buddhist tradition in Thailand has lost its way. It's a mockery of the wisdom and compassion of the dhamma.