First Thai Female Monk Ordained

February 11, 2002


BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — A 55-year-old Buddhist nun has become the first female monk to be ordained in Thailand, presenting the most open challenge yet to the country’s all-male clergy. Varanggana Vanavichayen was ordained Sunday by a Sri Lankan woman monk in the presence of a male Thai monk. Theravada scriptures, as interpreted in Thailand, require that for a woman to be ordained a monk, the ceremony must be attended by both a male and female monk.

Monks are the main clerics in Thai Buddhism, while nuns do little besides tend temples and other low-level work. Seven other female monks — three Sri Lankan, two Taiwanese and one Indonesian — also attended the ceremony, the Bangkok Post newspaper reported.

The ceremony was conducted at a temple in Nakorn Pathom, 30 miles west of Bangkok. The temple is run by Chatsumarn Kabilasingha, another woman who shook the Buddhist
establishment by becoming ordained as a monk in Sri Lanka and returning to Thailand last year. “I know that there might be resistance. But I am prepared, knowing that I am doing the right thing, Varanggana was quoted as saying by the Post.

Varanggana was a nun for nine years and worked as a secretary and translator before that. She has two children but divorced her husband to fulfill a vow of celibacy. Varanggana and Chatsumarn were not available for comment on Monday.

Chatsumarn’s ordination and her temple are not recognized by the Sangha Council, as the official Buddhist clergy is known, or by the government’s Religious Affairs Department. However, there is little that they can do to prevent Chatsumarn from following and practicing Buddhist precepts.

Suthiwong Tantayapisalsuth, deputy chief of the Religious Affairs Department, said Monday that Varanggana will not be recognized as a monk by the department. But he admitted that the ordination and the department’s refusal to recognize it has exposed a conflict: While the Constitution prohibits religious or gender discrimination, a law on clergy states that a lay person who dresses as a monk will face a two-month jail term.

Women can be ordained as monks in Sri Lanka, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and South Korea, with most of these countries dominated by the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Female ordination is not practiced in Japan, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.