When the 4:30 a.m. gong sounds at Songdhammakalyani (SDK) Monastery, its rich, resonant tones reset your heart – it’s rhythm changes, slows, switches gears, bends toward listening. Then the chanting begins as saffron robed bhikkhuni (female monks) speak their creed in lilting unison.
Songdhammakalyani resides beside the frenetic Petkasem Highway, 53 km west of Bangkok, Thailand and is the legacy of Venerable Voramai, a novelist, poet, and adventurer who eventually became the first modern female Thai bhikkhuni. Armed with the knowledge that Buddha himself ordained women, and unable to receive ordination in her homeland, she travelled to Taiwan in 1971. Ven Voramai then spent the remainder of her life caring for orphans, as a healer, and working for change for women in Buddhism. Her daughter, Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the current abbess of SDK, obtained her ordination in Sri Lanka. Female ordination is still not recognized in Thailand, an oversight at odds with the Thai constitution which prohibits gender discrimination. In 2015, the National Human Rights commission of Thailand (NHRC) ruled that prohibiting the ordination of women is a violation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But as with so many of the world’s religions, Thai Buddhism remains a male-dominated hierarchy which relegates women to support roles and denies them full participation in religious life. The bhikkhuni of Songdhammakalyani Monastery are living rebuttals to this domination; peaceful advocates for a life they feel both called and qualified to follow.
My request for a three day stay at Songdhammakalyani was honest – as a practising Christian I sought instruction in meditation, and in return I offered encouragement as a sister of faith. The prompt reply informed me of fees (US $20 daily room and board) and instructed that I would be expected to participate in their daily routines.
In the weeks before my arrival, while travelling across Thailand and roaming through myriad temples, my excitement grew. But when the bus deposited me outside SDK’s metal gates, I hesitated, wondering if the life within might fail to hold my interest, if the world outside might constantly distract and beckon. I needn’t have worried. From the first moments, Songdhammakalyani intrigued me with an atmosphere that belied the controversy created by the very existence of this monastery, while the external world receded and shrank away.
I was joined during my stay at SDK by three other solo travellers – two women from the U.S. and one from Britain. Our accommodations were simple clean rooms complete with private bathrooms and a ceiling fan to stir the oppressive air. Together we rose to chant in the pre-dawn, rake the yard during community work time, consume vegetarian meals, and receive practical meditation instruction. Afternoons were our own to spend reading in the well-stocked library, visiting or meditating.
Dhammaparipunna Bhikkhuni is a patient teacher. A former university professor, she sought a deeper expression of her faith through ordination and now calls SDK home. Each morning we sat, cross-legged (actually I sat on a chair because my knee won’t bend like that anymore), eyes closed, trying not to fidget, while she calmly guided us into letting go of ourselves and being, in each moment, with increased awareness. The results were feelings of peace, of patience, and of a desire to pull away, even further, from the world beyond the gates.
As a woman of faith, I often ponder the issue of women and their role in the faith community. And what I found myself asking during this stay at Songdhammakalyani were these two questions: 1) What do female leaders bring to the faith community? and 2) What does the faith community lose by not allowing women a full and equal scope of practice (i.e. How does gender inequality diminish a faith community?). Inherent in this discussion is the fact that it is often only men, in male-dominated institutions, making these decisions about women – about a woman’s worth, her morality, her abilities, her rights.
I posed the question of what female leaders bring to Buddhism to one of SDK’s monks and her answer was immediate and unreserved. “Humanity,” she said. “Female monks become involved in helping the community, in dealing with social problems.”
Her words rang true when I considered the daily lives of the Bhikkhuni- their joyful relationships with each other and the lay volunteers, their kindness to visitors, and the prison ministry where they encourage and counsel female prisoners. And there is something else, something so important that it cannot truly be quantified. These few women, of all ages and from all walks of life, some with PhDs and others barely literate, in their saffron robes and shaven heads, are engaged in a daily struggle that is common to all women – to be recognized as complete and entire, their talents and gifts and qualities not less than but equal, their futures unlimited, their daughters celebrated. Their struggle is my struggle.
On my final morning at Songdhammakalyani, I wake before the gong and splash my face with cool water in the already hot and humid pre-dawn. Amid the lightening shadows I stride to the base of the wooden platform and I wait – until the deep resounding again resets the rhythm of my heart. The chanting begins, women’s voices raised in solemn, lilting worship, and I am content.