Interview with Bhikkhuni Dhammananda

[ There are some upcoming retreats with Bhikkhuni Dhammananda in July, Sept and Oct 2008 in English. See : ]

Bhikkhuni Dhammananda Interview

Part One

It is not easy to get Thai monks to do things outside their usual temple activities, especially abbots. So we were most pleased and honoured when Bhikkhuni Dhammananda unhesitatingly said she would gladly come to Baan Aree Library Dhamma Hall and give a Talk in English for us, even though she is running a full time Buddhist study and practise program at her temple for the Rains Retreat.

Venerable Dhammananda taught as a lay person in Thammasart University, Dept of Philosophy and Religion for 27 years, and published 40+ books and translations mostly under her lay name Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh. She now oversees the quarterly publication of Yasodara, which focuses on the activities of Buddhist women and Bhikkhunis around the world. In between, that is, her frequent trips abroad teaching and promoting the cause of Bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions, and running regular classes and 3 day meditation retreats in her own temple just outside Bangkok. Her captivating tones and manner render the wisdom of the years that are hidden from her youthful features.

We were lucky that a swift journey from Nakhom Pathom took less time than getting across a few miles in Bangkok, and thus we were several hours early arriving at the Dhamma Hall. This gave Dr David Holmes and myself a fortuitous hour to spend quietly with Ven Dhammananda, and run some questions by her.

Q: The Thai Sangha Council’s position on Bhikkhunis seems to be neither for or against – they seem to just letting things ride ….

Ven. Dh. That’s right, in fact they cannot say anything because according to their charter the word ‘Sangha’ is defined as Bhikkhu [monks] Sangha, so in that sense they have no right to say yes or no to the Bhikkhuni [nuns] Sangha. They would need an official Sangha Council Act to change this and that means passing a Parliamentary Bill. According to the Buddha, “Sangha” is both Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sangha, but their charter mentions only the Bhikkhu Sangha, which puts them in a very difficult situation. According to Parliamentary Law, I am not doing anything illegal, but to recognize me as a Bhikkhuni – that is the job of the Sangha. But they are stuck with this Sangha Act.

Q: So it seems they want to let things develop slowly rather than make a big sudden change to Thai culture…

VEN DH: I was at a function and sat close to one of the head monks of Thailand – one who had forbidden the Mae Chees in his temple from ordaining as Samaneris [Novice Bhikkhunis] but who later said let them do as they wish and we will see what happens. One of the issues is they want to make sure that once we are here we are of good quality. That is a big issue; even in the Bhikkhu Sangha it is very difficult to control the quality of the monks, without the complication of female monks.

Q. How many of the Mae Chees do you think actually want to become Bhikkhunis?

VEN DH: They are scared … No we are not expecting Bhikkhunis to come out of Mae Chees. Within the social structure they are scared, especially as they have not had the nod from the monks. If they get the nod, then maybe they will do it.

Q. I asked a number of the Mae Chees in my temple about this, and they said as a Bhikkhuni it is very difficult to go and buy things in shops. Being a Bhikkhuni would be more impractical …

VEN DH: Ahh… so for them it is a practical reason.

Q. Over the last few years you have had a lot of attention, including from the international media, and have been traveling a lot. Most recently you went to Mexico, and have just had to cancel a trip to Macedonia. With all this do you get time for your personal practise ?

VEN DH: Travelling has always been part of my life, for over 20 years. Now being an ordained person during the Rains Retreat we cannot travel outside the temple for more than 7 days, and that limits my traveling. But in my life, in my line of practise, every moment breathing in and out – this is the practise. To talk to people and maintain equanimity; to talk to my students without getting frustrated, that is practise. So the sitting with closed eyes kind of meditation is good practise for beginners, so that you know how to handle your Greed, Hatred and Delusion [Lobha, Dosa, Moha]. It is meant for that kind of practise to give you the experience of calmness of mind, so that you can extend it when you have your eyes open …..

And she added “It’s still difficult for me … I can still get annoyed, but at least not to the point of shouting anymore.

Q. You said to me a couple of days ago that you cannot divide time as ‘practise’ and ‘work’ otherwise it would be too much for you. All time is practise time….

VEN DH: Yes, you know my friends in the West sometimes complain that they have to take care of their meditation centers and their teachers who visit from Tibet or somewhere, and they don’t have time to practise…. I don’t know – if you try to find time to sit down and practise then you will become suffocated because that is not the life of a monastic. You will always have to attend to people. So I attend to people who come to the temple with all kinds of problems – you can’t even imagine.

I do have to balance with compassion for my physical body and attending to others. There are times when you grow older – you [pointing to me] might not feel it now, but when you grow older the body starts reminding one that you have to rest. At those times I will disappear for half an hour, and come back later. You have to prioritise.

To David Holmes – Your health too has not been too good in recent years ….

David: Yes I have an enlarged heart, The right side it three quarters bigger than the left side. But somehow through Dhamma practise, the body has compensated. Normally, one might well be dead ..

VEN DH: : Ahh congratulations, that is good to hear. I have been having brain atrophy according to an MRI scan, but I have found out that neurons and nerves can actually still grow. So don’t stop working .. to keep the balance between the right and the left side of the brain I have been working with clay – which is doing something with my hands. So I think that my brain is still working, in spite of the fact that it is shrinking according to age…

 [ In recent years Buddhism has been taught more and more in universities rather than in temples. In laylife Ven. Dhammananda was instrumental in setting up and teaching the Thammasart university course in Buddhism – a big change for Thai culture, that lay people, and women in particular, were now becoming the favoured teachers in a role previously restricted to the monks and monasteries ]
Q: You taught in Thammasart University for some years …

VEN DH.: Yes 27 years

Q: I have noticed that these days monks, including a lot of foreign monks, study Buddhism in the universities instead of the temples. You have gone the opposite way – from teaching in a University environment to teaching as a Bhikkhuni….

VEN DH. : I did not plan to be teaching as a monastic but then once ordained I found that I was still teaching. I think I was the first woman in Thailand to get a PhD in Religion, so it had always been a completely male domain. There was no BA offered during my time, that’s why I had to go to India and Canada to study. So with the knowledge that I have it is a shame to ordain and not teach. Actually Thammasart University have set up classes that have followed me to the monastery … and I have to set up a course for them. And in this modern age the university of Ohio looked us up on the website and booked a stay for 3 days – 35 of them coming to experience the monastic life. These are Catholics! So they also wanted an intensive introductory course in Buddhism.

Q. So why do monks study Buddhism now in University and not in the temple?

VEN DH: The quality of teaching. And they don’t expect to be monks for the rest of their lives. If they have a MA from Thammasart University they have a much better chance of getting along after disrobing.
The teaching style in the temples is very different – it is learning by rote. You cannot vary from what your teachers say. University style teaching is very different. There is lots of study on your own, lots of research and questioning. It you learn by rote you will never learn to see what is wrong in society, you can never think on your own. Injustice done to women, you know … what causes all the social problems. They have never been taught to think this way.

Q. : So it is a good thing that the Universities are taking over the role of teaching Buddhism?

VEN DH : Yes, so Thammasart University started in my time to open up the Masters degree program. It has been going for about 11 years now [in 2007]. Mostly Mahanikaya monks, but also one from Dhammayut [the 2 main sects in Thailand] The screening is quite tough.
For the Monks university [Mahaculalongkorn] the funding is very small – their annual budget is equal to what Thammasart gets in one day! So they cannot plan to have all departments like Chulalongkorn … So why do they not focus .. make it really strong just on the subject of Buddhism ? Buddhist psychology, Buddhist research, Buddhist this and that – everything but always with Buddhism. Then you would really make it very strong. When people come to Thailand then they could not go anywhere else for Buddhism than Mahacula university. But they opened it up for all kinds of subjects and they cannot compete with the big universities.

Q. : You said a few days ago that the people who come to your temple are very eager to learn. One perception of Thai people is that they are only interested in Tam Boon [merit making] and not real study or practise….

VEN DH : Now I find we are getting women in their 30’s and 40’s, working women, who realize they cannot just go on working alone. They need something spiritual. This is the new trend. In the last 10 years people are coming asking questions, really asking, not happy with just what they have learned from the traditional monks – a lot more questions are coming from the public.

Click for the Interview Part II


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5 Responses to Interview with Bhikkhuni Dhammananda

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