Buddhist Women As Agents of Change: Case Studies from Thailand and Indonesia

Lai Suat Yan

While in Thailand the majority of its population are adherents of the Theravada Buddhist ‘tradition’, in Indonesia, Buddhism is a minority religion with the Theravada Buddhist ‘tradition’ embraced by the majority of Buddhists. However, the development of the Theravada tradition in Indonesia is much influenced by its counterparts in Thailand.

Consisting only of men, the Theravada Buddhist ecclesiastical authorities in both Thailand and Indonesia do not recognize bhikkhunis (a fully ordained female monastic). In this context, the aspiration and determination of Buddhist women to be female monastics in the Theravada Buddhist tradition in the 21st century reflect their role as agents of change to bring renewal to their faith. Their convictions and actions affirm women’s spirituality and gender inclusiveness as envisioned by the Buddha in establishing the female monastic order. They are able to survive and even grow due to their ability to attract their own supporters and followers. Furthermore, those who aspired to be female monastic are able to travel outside of their countries to be ordained due to the transnational dimension of Buddhism. These Buddhist women thus reclaim their identities and roles from only being supporters of Buddhism to that of spiritual leaders, religious innovators and ritual specialists. The Theravada Buddhist ‘tradition’ is a changing one as the female adherents stake their claim to their rightful heritage as female monastic. Similarly, the identity and roles of Buddhist women are fluid.

Thailand’s Ven. Dhammananda on an almsround. She is seen here being given lotus flower buds, one of the popular offerings during almsrounds

Changing Identity of Buddhist Women

In Thailand, Ven. Dhammananda, and in Indonesia, Ven. Santini both reference the Buddhist scripture for a usable past 1 to posit that where bhikkhunis are not in existence, it is possible for them to be ordained by bhikkhus (fully ordained male monastic) only (Lai 2014, 3, 6). They thus became religious innovators by leading the way in becoming ordained and legitimized, deeds based upon the ‘original’, ‘pure’ message of the Buddha. Detractors of bhikkhuni ordination claim that the proper procedure and requirement for bhikkhuni ordination is to require both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (dual ordination) as the ‘original’, ‘pure’ message of the Buddha (Lai 2011, 147-48). Ven. Dhammananda received her full ordination as a bhikkhuni in 2003 in Sri Lanka and Ven. Santini with three other Indonesian Buddhist women did so in 2000 in Taiwan. Their ordination subsequently paved the way for other Thai and Indonesian Buddhist women to be ordained and to defend their ordination as being based on the Buddha’s ‘tradition’. However, none of them are recognized by the religious authorities of the Theravada ‘tradition’ in their home countries. Despite this, Ven. Dhammananda and Ven. Santini introduced samaneri (novice female monastic) temporary ordination which is based upon the samanera (novice male monastic) temporary ordinations in their respective countries.

Nevertheless, both Ven. Dhammananda, and Ven. Santini are able to attract their own followers and are invited for ritual blessings of new homes and donated lands for schools. When they go for pindapata (almsround), a ritual symbolic of being a monastic in the Theravada tradition, laypeople give them dana (offerings of food, drink and flowers) indicating their support. Significantly, monastic — in this case, bhikkhunis — who practice well and purify their minds as they observe 311 precepts are sources of merits. Conventionally, women are perceived as only receivers of merits or as supporters of Buddhism (Terwiel 1994, 243). However, as female monastic they become “conveyor of blessings” (Harvey 1990, 241) in their role as ritual specialists whether it is going for pindapata (almsround) or in ceremonies conveying blessings for healing, protection or to ward off evil spirits. In ordaining and practicing well, women become synonymous with sources of merit and conveyers of blessings and symbolically represent sacred and positive power (Lai 2011, 203-17), a role conventionally identified with male monastic.

Ven. Santini during a blessings ceremony for land donated to expand a school
Ven. Santini during a blessings ceremony for land donated to expand a school

Both bhikkhunis are regarded as a spiritual leaders in their respective countries with their own followers and are well known for being socially engaged Buddhists. The female monastic at Songdhammakalyani Temple where Ven Dhammananda is abbess have worked with female prison inmates since 2011 (Dhammananda 2013, 16-20) and run an environmentally friendly project. Ven. Dhammananda has contributed to training and strengthening the Indian Bhikkhuni Sangha (Yasodhara 2013, 8-11) as well as facilitating the ordination of male monastic from Sankissa, India in Thailand (Thakur 2013, 5-7) and became involved in interfaith dialogue with Muslims in southern Thailand.

Furthermore, Ven. Santini and her followers are known for their work with the disadvantaged that transcends religious lines whether it is donating basic necessities such as rice, oil and sugar or monetary contribution in the aftermath of a fire to rebuild homes of the villagers nearby Wisma Kusalayani, Lembang where she is abbess or coming to the aid of the victims of the recent Mt Kelud eruption who are predominantly Muslims (Lai 2014, 5-6). The Wisma Kusalayani is run in an environmentally sustainable manner with a policy of reduce, reuse and recycle whether it is with regards to water or other household products and a separation of organic and non-organic waste.

Ven. Santini On An Aid Mission to Survivors of the Predominantly Muslim Population Affected by the Mt Kelud Eruption, Indonesia

Buddhist Women As Agents of Change

The research conducted indicates that these Buddhist women are agents of change as they bring renewal to their faith by ordaining as female monastic in spite of the obstacles encountered. They refer to the Buddhist scripture to reclaim their heritage as female monastic. As educated persons knowledgeable about Buddhist history and teachings of their tradition, they are able to withstand the opposition encountered and defend their ordination. As female monastic, they become more visible publicly, be it as a spiritual leader, a ritual specialist or a religious innovator. Both Ven. Santini and Ven. Dhammananda are religious innovators as they tap local culture and sentiments by introducing the samaneri temporary ordination in their respective countries, an innovation based on the existing samanera temporary ordination.

… And Growing Support

Support for the female monastic is growing as they find a niche in attending to the needs of female Buddhists due to the prohibition of close contact between a monastic and the opposite sex and in meeting the needs of the more disadvantaged sections of society. The socially engaged Buddhist practice that transcends religious lines bodes well for the future and can serve as a stepping stone towards religious harmony. In both the Thai and Indonesian case, networking at the international dimension enables them to be ordained. Furthermore, international networking offers a pathway for female monastic to share their experiences and ideas on a broader stage as well as learning from each other.

Dr Lai Suat Yan 2API Fellow 2013/14
Gender Studies Program, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University Malaya, Malaysia.
Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, (Issue 16), Young Academics Voice, January 2015
Banner image: Ven. Dhammananda and the Female Monastic at Songdhammakalyani Monastery.
Find out more about the Songdhammakalyani Monastery and Thai Bhikkunis: http://www.thaibhikkhunis.org/eng2014/index.html

Ven. Dhammmananda and two female monastic on almsround
Ven. Dhammmananda and two female monastic on almsround

Dhammananda. 2013. Engaged Buddhism: Bhikkhunis’ Work in Prison. Yasodhara 31/1: 16-20.
Gross, Rita. 2009. A Garland of Feminist Reflections. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Harvey, Peter. 1990. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lai Suat Yan. 2014. Buddhist Women As Spiritual Leaders, Ritual Specialists and Religious Innovators: Case Studies from Thailand, Indonesia and Japan. Paper presented at the 13th API Regional Conference, Hiroshima, Japan, 9-13th November.
Lai, Suat Yan. 2011. Engendering Buddhism, Female Ordination and Women’s Voices in Thailand. PhD diss., Claremont Graduate University.
Muecke, Marjorie. 2004. Female Sexuality in Thai Discourses About Maechi (lay nuns), Culture, Health and Sexuality 6/3: 221-38.
Tambiah, Stanley J. 1976. World Conqueror, World Renouncer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Terwiel, Barend J. 1994. Monks and Magic. 3rd ed. rev. Bangkok: White Lotus Press.
Thakur. 2013. Ordination of the Sakyas in Thailand. Yasodhara 31/1: 5-7.
Yasodhara. 2013. Training Program for All Indian Bhikkhuni Sangha. Yasodhara 31/1: 8-11.


  1. See Gross (2009, 20) for the importance of an accurate and usable past to empower women in the present and see Tambiah (1976, 528) and Muecke (2004, 232-34) for the deployment of an usable past in the context of religion in Thailand.
  2. I would like to acknowledge the support of the API Fellow grant for the data collected in Indonesia and for some of the materials and information gathered in Thailand.