By TOMOMI ITO - July 5, 2017
Dhammamātā: Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu’s Notion of Motherhood in Buddhist Women Practitioners.
By Dr. Tomomi Ito, University of Kobe (Japan).
Original version published in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 38(3), October 2007. [PDF]
Correspondence in connection with this article should be addressed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This electronic edition has been made possible with the kind permission of the author (July 2017).
ABSTRACT: The notion of dhammamātā is one of the last items of the legacy of the late Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu. In order to accord women practitioners better social status and provide them with opportunities for spiritual training, Buddhadāsa avoided committing himself to the reintroduction of bhikkunī ordination. Instead, he proposed the notion of dhammamātā, which literally means ‘dhamma mother.’ This article postulates that by using the metaphor of the mother, Buddhadāsa invited less conflict, appealing to the high respect which Thai people generally held for women. Moreover, the article argues that with dhammamātā Buddhadāsa challenged the common notion of motherhood which usually regards women as nurturers of the Saṅgha. Dhammamātā nurture people’s spirituality through their teaching and virtues. Whilst the social impact of dhammamātā cannot be compared to that of bhikkunī, whose yellow robes visually suggest a status equivalent to that of male bhikkhu, the concept of dhammamātā was a new creation revolving around the image of the female religious teacher, a role that Buddhist women had wanted.
* The author would like to thank all the dhamma teachers and friends she met in the course of this research at the Dhammamātā Hermitage and elsewhere – especially Āchān Ranchuan Inthrakamhāeng, Āchān Santikaro, Khun Mēttā Phānit, Pā Mō Sōemsap Damrongrat, Āchān Chitsai Phadungrat, Phī Pet, Phī Ō, Phī Tim and Phī Mon. She is grateful to Dr Craig Reynolds for reading an earlier draft of the paper, and to Professor Barbara Andaya for her paper on motherhood and the appeal of early Theravāda Buddhism. Professor Andaya's paper gave insight on an important issue and provided many useful references. The author would also like to thank Lawrie Hunter for his discussions and editorial input. *
The monastic lifestyle differs considerably from common notions of women’s happiness. Physical beauty is generally considered important for women, but those who choose the Buddhist monastic life shave their heads and eyebrows and observe precepts which include abstinence from wearing make-up, dressing up and wearing perfume. Moreover, women in ascetic practice must renounce family life, where many women would normally find intimacy and happiness as wives and mothers. Even unmarried women who have expertise in professional occupations are told that for them true happiness does not lie in competitive success. Nevertheless, in contemporary Thailand a small number of women of considerable achievement in both their education and their profession willingly renounce their worldly careers to dedicate themselves to Buddhist ascetic practice.
In contrast with societal admiration of men who become ordained monks, a woman’s renunciation of materialistic life for religious practice is often looked upon with a jaundiced eye because of a traditional stigma: Thai people tend to consider renounced Buddhist women practitioners either as sad people who may have suffered seriously from being broken-hearted or as helpless people who have no way to support themselves other than relying on religious charity. Therefore, in Thailand it is difficult for women practitioners to find sufficient social support for their doctrinal studies and ascetic practices, whereas male monks and novices take such support for granted. This is an unfortunate disadvantage for women with substantial ability and strong motivations. They have limited social support and no appropriate environment in which to develop their potentialities in the realm of Buddhism. In short, there is a significant gender-based bias in the social reality of Thai Buddhism.
One of the most noteworthy disadvantages for Buddhist women has been the lack of opportunity for formal ordination. In Theravāda tradition the ordination lineage of Buddhist nuns called bhikkunī – the female equivalents of bhikkhu (the ordained male monks commonly seen in contemporary Theravāda Buddhist countries, who don yellow robes and observe the 227 monastic precepts) – was disrupted in eleventh-century Sri Lanka, before the prototype of present-day Theravāda was transmitted to Thailand. Unlike the formally ordained bhikkunī who observe the 311 monastic precepts, Thai Buddhist women practitioners commonly become māe chī, who have their heads shaven, don white robes and regularly keep the eight precepts designated for pious lay people doing short-term ascetic practice in a temple. Thus māe chī are formally regarded as laity even though they are determined to follow a religious path for life, renouncing the secular world. Their ambiguous status – factual renunciants, yet without formal ordained status – is one of the reasons why society tends to expect māe chī to assist with domestic aspects of monastic life such as food preparation, rather than offering them support and opportunities for religious training equivalent to that enjoyed by bhikkhu. Although there are increasing efforts to raise the social status of women practitioners, there are only a small number of places providing opportunities exclusively for women’s ascetic practice.
Later in his life, Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu (1906–93), one of Thailand’s most highly respected dhamma teachers, attempted to improve social conditions for women practitioners’ conduct of ascetic practice. Buddhadāsa’s prime mission was to disseminate lokuttara dhamma, the teachings and practices aimed at achieving the supramundane state of nibbāna. In the past, Thai Buddhists were only familiar with the moral teachings known as lokiya dhamma, linked more generally to merit-making, while they tended to consider nibbāna as being too difficult for ordinary people to attain. By contrast, Buddhadāsa promoted the practical application of lokuttara dhamma in daily life for overcoming suffering through the release of attachment, which is a major cause of suffering. He taught that by putting lokuttara dhamma into practice, people could experience a temporary nibbāna. His interest was focused on what he regarded as the ‘core’ or ‘essence,’ rather than forms and rituals, which he often called ‘outer coverings’ or ‘shells’ of a religion.
Buddhadāsa’s promotion of the transcendent state of nibbāna for everyone regardless of ordained status, gender, nationality or religious faith appeared to be encouraging for underprivileged women practitioners, yet it was not until he was approaching the age of 80 that he realised that social disadvantages could be significantly hindering the spiritual development of women practitioners. He proposed an ideal for female practitioners which he named dhammamātā, which literally translates as ‘dhamma mothers’ or ‘mothers of dhamma,’ and a place for dhamma practice by dhammamātā, the Dhammamātā Hermitage. Dhammamātā are thus counterparts to bhikkunī and alternatives to conventional renunciant female practitioners in Thailand.
Buddhadāsa’s notion of dhammamātā is a significant topic to study for two reasons. First, it is a ground-breaking attempt by a Buddhist intellectual firmly rooted in traditional values to solve the problem of gender inequality in Thai Buddhism. The loss of the bhikkunī saṅgha is the most prominent source of gender inequality of Theravāda Buddhism, but in a tradition which highly values the continuation of traditional formality, the restoration of the lost ordination lineage is generally considered impossible. In Thailand and elsewhere people often express difficulties in accepting the ideal gender relations proposed by women’s movements, even when such proposals are accompanied by a reasonable rationale. One of the reasons for such difficulties is the perception of a gap between traditional and new alternative gender norms. Buddhadāsa, rather than persuading people to make a radical change in their traditional view, by proposing dhammamātā appealed to a dominant local value which affords women a position of respect. This can be seen as attempted social change rooted in local tradition.
Second, although a number of scholars have examined Buddhadāsa’s unique interpretations, his notion of dhammamātā has not been studied extensively. Probably Santikaro Bhikkhu’s article is one of the few written in western languages which mention dhammamātā, but it is only introduced in a paragraph in the final remarks as one of the projects of Buddhadāsa in his final years. Since Buddhadāsa came to the idea of dhammamātā in his later years in the early 1980s, it was not included in the major studies of his thought by Donald K. Swearer, Peter A. Jackson and Louis Gabaude in the late 1980s. Buddhadāsa has often been regarded as one of the most prominent Buddhist thinkers who led contemporary Buddhists to engage in social works, largely because of his emphasis on nibbāna as being accessible in one’s present psychological state in worldly circumstances. Nevertheless, even though many Buddhists claim that their commitment to social issues was inspired by his teaching, Buddhadāsa himself planned few actual projects for social works such as rural development and public health. In fact, his emphasis on the ‘core’ of religion tended to disregard such external social phenomena as forms and rituals and social circumstances of religious practices. Thus his teachings may be interpreted as proposing that an individual should aim at a spiritual goal, focus on spiritual training, and tolerate any social circumstances, no matter how unfavourable.
It was the question of gender inequality that prompted Buddhadāsa in his later days to reconsider his basic attitude and directed his attention to social engagement, namely by providing women with better conditions and opportunities for monastic training. His concept of the Dhammamātā Hermitage was one of the very few cases where Buddhadāsa worked to implement a reformative project. This article examines the following three aspects of Buddhadāsa’s thoughts on women’s dhamma practice: first, how he shifted his attitudes towards women’s rights to ordination and dhamma practice; second, his notion of dhammamātā and his appeal to motherhood; and third, the social implications of the notion of motherhood in the Thai context.
SHIFT IN BUDDHADASA'S ATTITUDE TOWARDS WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN BUDDHISM
It seems that before the idea of dhammamātā dawned upon Buddhadāsa at around the age of 80, he was not particularly interested in women’s opportunities to enter dhamma practice. Sources consulted for this article point to three main incidents which prompted Buddhadāsa to think about the gender issue in Buddhism: first, the bhikkunī restoration movement in the late 1920s; second, a plea by one of his female followers in the late 1930s; and third, his sister’s illness from the late 1960s onward.
Narin Phāsit’s bhikkunī restoration movement
One of the first incidents that stimulated Buddhadāsa to think about women’s disadvantages in Buddhism was the movement for the reintroduction of female ordination in Thailand in the 1920s. In 1928 Narin Phāsit (1874–1950), a provocative social critic who proposed a number of unique ideas for political and religious reforms, asked the Thai public to consider the possibility of women’s ordination. Narin had his two daughters ordained as sāmaṇerī (Buddhist female novices) and lodged them together with some other sāmaṇerī in a temple he had built. Narin’s intention was to create a complement for the four original groups in Buddhism: bhikkhu, bhikkunī, upāsaka (laymen), and upāsikā (laywomen) (by then bhikkunī no longer existed in Theravāda Buddhism). He also hoped that the newly ordained women would perform ideal Buddhist practices for overcoming suffering, which he could hardly find in practice among Buddhist monks at that time. Narin presented his plan to the public through both public print media and his own freely distributed booklets; sometimes in his publications he even bluntly criticised the existing state of Buddhism and the Saṅgha elders. A number of people accepted his claim as reasonable, yet most newspapers, along with the religious and political authorities, responded antagonistically and regarded his loud criticisms and calls for justice as the pursuit of fame.
News of Narin’s movement for the reform of Buddhism, including the issue of women’s ordination, reached his intellectual contemporaries, young Buddhadāsa and his younger brother Dhammadāsa Phānit (1909–2000), who remained a layman. Dhammadāsa was always Buddhadāsa’s important intellectual co-worker; in 1933 they launched together an epoch-making Buddhist journal in Thailand, Phutthasāsāna (Buddhism). Interestingly, however, the brothers had clearly differing attitudes toward Narin. In my interview with 90-year-old Dhammadāsa in 1999, in response to my question about Narin’s movement for women’s ordination, he smiled delightfully and said that he had faith in Narin. Dhammadāsa recalled an exciting event from his youth. He recounted that having thought that Narin was doing the right thing, he sent a letter expressing appreciation of Narin’s work. Narin, in turn, responded with a gift of his books. Dhammadāsa suggested that Narin visit Buddhadāsa, who was then studying Pāli in Bangkok.
Unlike Dhammadāsa, Buddhadāsa did not take Narin’s criticism of laxity in monastic disciplines seriously. In an interview with a disciple he said that Narin published some large books, which contained many pictures of monks who were flouting rules such as the prohibition against touching money. Seeing these pictures, Buddhadāsa perceived that Narin was encouraging people to become critical of monastic misconduct and admonishing monks to take the discipline more strictly. Nevertheless, he commented that most people thought that the examples raised by Narin were ‘nothing unusual.’ Buddhadāsa seemed to be rather unhappy with Narin, because in the early 1930s when he started such activities as journal publication, some people mistrusted him, suspecting him and his group of being Narin’s disciples.
In an interview with a disciple Buddhadāsa did not clearly state his opinion about women’s ordination, but his view of Narin’s attempt was unmistakably negative. Buddhadāsa called Narin ‘half-crazy, half-intoxicated,’ and suspected that he wanted to cultivate a reputation as a reviver of the original four Buddhist groups through his reintroduction of bhikkunī. As Dhammadāsa said in my interview with him, Buddhadāsa suspected that Narin might swindle people by requesting contributions for this magnificent project. As a result, Dhammadāsa could not discuss with Buddhadāsa the possibility of formal ordination for women, because he was sure that his brother would not be interested in it. On the other hand, Dhammadāsa thought that Narin had a wonderful idea and because he had served as provincial governor (chao muang) of Nakhōn Nāyok, he was already wealthy. However, Dhammadāsa admitted that it was not just his brother, but actually the majority of people who were dissatisfied with Narin. This seems to have been an opportunity for Buddhadāsa to learn how the Saṅgha authorities and the Buddhist public would react to the idea of reintroducing bhikkunī, a proposal which could provoke a serious controversy. Whether or not Buddhadāsa perceived the rationale for bhikkunī ordination as reasonable, the incident taught him that it would take considerable time before its revival would prove a benefit for women’s dhamma practice. It is not difficult to imagine that he had no enthusiasm for reviving the Buddhist women’s ordination ritual, form and status, because he considered these to be ‘outer coverings’ of religion, rather than its ‘core.’
A question of Buddhist women’s titles: Upāsikā Kī Nānāyon
The second incident which raised questions for Buddhadāsa about the status of renunciant women practitioners was a call for his help from Upāsikā Kī Nānāyon (1901–78), a serious female practitioner who followed his teachings. Kī was highly respected as a female meditation teacher and was also known for her Buddhist poetry written under the pen name ‘Kō. Khaosuanluang.’ She often contributed her poems to Buddhadāsa’s journal. There is correspondence between Kī and Buddhadāsa from 1939–40 regarding the title of upāsikā in the archives of Suan Mōkkh, Buddhadāsa’s temple, where his diaries and letters are kept.
In one of her letters, Kī sought Buddhadāsa’s support for the use of the title ‘Upāsikā’ in certificates for Buddhist doctrinal examinations of successful women candidates, rather than ‘Nāng’ (used for married women, equivalent to ‘Mrs’) or ‘Nāng Sāo’ (used for single women, equivalent to ‘Miss’), which are commonly applied to women living in the secular world. It seems that Kī and her group of upāsikā thought it inappropriate to apply to women practitioners a form of address indicating marital status, identical to the style of address for ordinary lay women living in a secular world. In fact, female practitioners in Thailand come from various states and experiences of marriage: some may have been married before they fully renounced worldly life, some may have had to shuffle between their family and the temple, and others never married. However, it was thought unnecessary to use forms of address based on marital status, because celibacy is part of ascetic practice. The most comprehensive and respectful form of address for Buddhist women practitioners who may be in various marital states is the use of the title Upāsikā before their names. The request from Kī and her group of upāsikā should be interpreted as a subtle demand for official recognition of their status as distinct from that of ordinary lay women living in the secular world.
Kī appealed to Buddhadāsa concerning this problem, probably because he was one of her most reliable contacts who had sufficient acquaintances among the Saṅgha elders. In response to Kī’s plea in her letter dated 12 August 1939, Buddhadāsa talked with the Supreme Patriarch (the highest-ranking Thai monk) about this issue. According to Buddhadāsa’s reply to Kī, dated 12 September, the Supreme Patriarch said that he agreed with the idea proposed by the group of upāsikā. However, Buddhadāsa suggested instead that she bring the issue directly to the head or the deputy head of the ecclesiastical examination bureau, who was actually in charge of certification. He also urged her to hurry to make that contact as it was almost time to dispatch the list of successful candidates. In her letter dated 20 September, Kī sought further support from Buddhadāsa, because her group of upāsikā was unable to appeal to higher ecclesiastical authorities. On 18 January 1940 Buddhadāsa replied, saying that it was already too late for that year, but expressing his wish for a possible change in the following year. Subsequently, Kī wrote at least three letters to Buddhadāsa, in which she mentioned her upāsikā group’s serious endeavours in the area of Buddhist study and practice and renewed her request for his support for the use of the title Upāsikā. Still unable to offer concrete support for this issue, in the end Buddhadāsa encouraged Kī as follows:
Regarding the change of title for upāsikā, it is still in my mind, but now we have to stop working on it for a while. The reason is that we have no other way to do it but through a new law which guarantees the change. The bill for the new law has to be passed by Parliament and needs someone to submit the bill. In fact, there should be someone who supports this idea, so there would be a possibility of success, as you wish. However, it should not be during hard times such as war or emergency, as at present. If there is anyone who goes against this current and proposes such a thing in Parliament, that person can only receive a disappointing result, because there are many other urgent matters. We should wait until the war ends and then discuss this issue; then people would listen to us wholeheartedly, have sufficient time to think about it, and become compassionate to us. Even the same issue proposed with different timing can make a lot of difference, so we should wait for a while. A waiting period like now is the best opportunity for upāsikā who wish for reform to make themselves fully useful so that politicians will feel impressed with them. It will be a way for politicians to become sympathetic, pick up the point, and examine it with a respectful attitude. If those māe chī wearing white robes do not do anything except begging and chanting unclearly, they are simply a burden to people. So, they may not speak to each other to be more compassionate about the point that you raise. People may consider it as unimportant whether or not they have māe chī; and when māe chī do not have a lot of practical roles, people think that they should not demand many rights and cause trouble. ... However, who knows, in the future upāsikā will become a remarkable group, if there is someone to lead a revolution for improving their way of living through developing their knowledge and ability and being at the forefront of their era [than samai]. If the majority of people in the world still think that māe chī are nothing but cooks for temples, or consider their sort of renunciation as just a tradition of an unnecessary fashion, and they can simply chant with beautiful [female] voices, I am sure that no politician would be willing to waste his time on this matter. I wish for a revolution among māe chī and hope that a strong leader can demonstrate their usefulness very soon. This is much more important than the female Buddhist title that you want. For such a change, one should have firmness and think of preparing for the distant future, just as Martin Luther did for the Christian world.
It seems that Buddhadāsa and the Saṅgha elders found the appeal by Kī and her upāsikā group reasonable, but they did not offer to make an effort help bring the issue to the appropriate administrative section of either the religious or civil authorities. For Buddhadāsa, who was a highly successful monk despite being still in his early thirties, it may have been quite difficult to urge the elder monks to make a political decision when they were initially unenthusiastic. The best he could do was to advise Kī, a serious practitioner, to shift her focus to the development of women’s capabilities in Buddhist teaching and practice. He did not turn to political authorities to make any changes in women’s position; rather, he preferred to overcome social inequalities through spiritual development, which would have the strongest religious appeal.
In the Suan Mōkkh archives there is no response from Kī to this advice from Buddhadāsa. As one of his most responsive followers and co-workers, she may have taken his message to heart, and she eventually became one of the most respected female practitioners in Thailand. Yet, since she was a woman practitioner who had to face the difficulties surrounding lack of societal recognition, her aspiration had little in common with Buddhadāsa’s. In fact, her attitude toward Narin’s movement for bhikkunī restoration was radically different from that of Buddhadāsa. She once visited Narin’s ordained daughters and accepted their visit to her shop in Phetchaburī, where she used to run a business. Unlike Buddhadāsa, Kī did not consider the attempt of Narin and his daughters as simply the pursuit of fame; rather, she respected and gave moral support to their campaign for the restoration of female ordination. In tandem with her conscientious endeavour towards ascetic practice, which Buddhadāsa recognised, there is evidence that she was seeking a concrete social reform to elevate the status of women practitioners in Buddhism.
Probably few of Buddhadāsa’s followers would disagree with his basic tenets: the overwhelming importance of religion’s ‘essential core’ rather than its ‘outer shells’; and a universalism that disregarded one’s gender, ordained status, nationality and religion in assessing the achievement of religious goals. However, the meaning accorded such ‘outer shells’ of religion as monastic costumes and status would have particular weight with the socially underprivileged. The limitations of such a formulaic view are well illustrated by the following episode. Paññananda Bhikkhu (1911– ), one of Buddhadāsa’s contemporaries and a highly respected preaching monk in contemporary Thailand, was once questioned by Sāra Rongkhasuan about the possibility of reintroducing bhikkunī. Sāra, Narin Phānit’s elder daughter, was a sāmaṇerī and bhikkunī in the late 1920s and early 1930s; she later disrobed and married to have children. Paññananda answered that it was not necessary to become a bhikkunī because ordination is a state of mind. He said that monks were in the same situation; they did not necessarily have to become ordained as monks, because being a monk meant simply having a renunciant state of mind. Sāra responded that she would invite him to disrobe so that he could learn whether lay people and those who are in the monastic form were actually the same or not.
After relating this story, one of Buddhadāsa’s disciples, Dutsadī Methangkurō Bhikkhu, insisted that monks should not say that ‘ordination is not necessary; it is only a matter of one’s state of mind,’ because they had more appropriate and convenient forms for dhamma practice. Referring to Buddhadāsa’s words, Dutsadī said:
If there are many precepts, religion can last long, but only a few people could reach the dhamma. We should examine whether we have a way for more women to reach the dhamma without holding on to a form of bhikkunī. Otherwise, we would cling to the struggle demanding the bhikkunī ordination and may end up losing the [real] point or dissolving the essential part. It may turn into a conflict; it’s just a frustrating matter.
The turning point for Buddhadāsa: The illness of his sister
It appears that for a long time Buddhadāsa, grounded in his focus on philosophy, had little interest in helping women practitioners. This basic attitude is also reflected in the policy followed in his temple, Suan Mōkkh. Initially he did not even allow any māe chī to live there, because ‘generally speaking they say that when women or māe chī are staying together, there would be trouble; it is an ancient saying.’ Later, Suan Mōkkh began to accept women residents for cooking assistance. As the number of monks and novices increased, the work and cost of food preparation and delivery became a serious burden for the local villagers, and so Buddhadāsa allowed a woman volunteer to live on the temple premises in order to cook for the monastic members.
Subsequently more women built their own huts in Suan Mōkkh, so Buddhadāsa built a road to separate the women’s residential area from the monastic compounds. He called the women’s zone the ‘Upāsikā Area’ (Khēt Ubāsikā), but never considered it to be a formal samnak chī (a residence for māe chī to practise dhamma). He would not even agree to become a preceptor to help women to become māe chī, nor would he allow any women to join the daily monastic activities, such as chanting, in the same place as the monks. He only accepted women whom he could trust not to make trouble as māe chī and other types of female practitioners to live in the ‘Upāsikā Area.’ Among them were both women from humble backgrounds and those who had successful careers in education and the professions. Even though Buddhadāsa offered capable women practitioners such as Ranchuan Inthrakamhāeng (1921– ) moral support equal to that given to monks, he seems to have been determined that male monastic members’ practice must not be hindered by the presence of females.
The last and most important incident that pushed Buddhadāsa to become seriously concerned about women’s dhamma practice was the illness of his younger sister Kimsōi (1911–89). As their family was a reputable, well-to-do family (what the Thai would call ‘thāna dī,’ literally of ‘good status’) in the southern town of Chaiyā (Surāt Thānī province), Kimsōi married into another good business family, the Hēmakūn, who had a large stationery store called Thai Watthanā in the nearby town of Bān Dōn. According to Mēttā Phānit, Buddhadāsa’s nephew and Dhammadāsa’s youngest son, after the death of her husband Kimsōi worried about her five children and how to divide the family fortune. She eventually developed insomnia and lost both her mental and physical health.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Buddhadāsa told Kimsōi many times that she should stay at Suan Mōkkh in order to overcome her suffering through dhamma practice. She did go to the temple a number of times, but only stayed there for a few days each time; her children took her back home before she could benefit from religious practice and health improvement. Later Kimsōi became paralysed and was taken care of by her children in Bangkok for many years. She died in 1989, only four years before Buddhadāsa’s passing. Mēttā said that because Buddhadāsa could provide only a little help for his own sister’s problem, his concern about women’s practice deepened. He would have had no doubt that the right practice of dhamma would lead to the overcoming of suffering, and this would have forced him to look at the social conditions which prevented women from seriously committing themselves to ascetic practice at temples.
According to Mēttā, Buddhadāsa started talking about dhammamātā as female renunciants constituting an alternative to bhikkunī when land was purchased some time in the early 1980s for the expansion of Suan Mōkkh. In 1986–87 the facilities built on the newly purchased land were opened as Suan Mōkkh International, one of the government-approved projects celebrating the fifth-cycle (60th) birthday of King Rāma IX. Dividing the premises of Suan Mōkkh International into three, Buddhadāsa proposed three projects: the International Dhamma Hermitage (about 9.6 hectares), the Dhamma Missionary Training Community (about 16 hectares), and the Dhammamātā Hermitage (about 6.4 hectares). The International Dhamma Hermitage offers both English and Thai retreat programmes every month to 80 to 100 people from foreign countries and 40 to 80 people from Thailand. The Dhamma Missionary Training Community was planned by Buddhadāsa as a place for the training of non-Thai monks and for the international propagation of dhamma. Santikaro Bhikkhu, an American disciple of Buddhadāsa who has translated some of his works into English, was the first resident.
The Dhammamātā Hermitage was the place that Buddhadāsa reserved particularly for women in order to offer them ideal conditions for their dhamma practice. Unfortunately, Buddhadāsa passed away in 1993 and could not do much for the Hermitage. It was only in December 1999, six years after his death, that the Hermitage was opened to run a four-month retreat programme for women entitled ‘Self-Training Programme for a Chaste Life of Untainted Beauty’ (Khrōngkān Fuk-oprom ton phua Khwām-mī Chīwit Phrommachan thī Mot-chot Ngot-ngām) led by Ranchuan and other female disciples.
Although Buddhadāsa was seldom directly involved in these three projects at Suan Mōkkh International, he specifically wanted his disciples to carry on the work to provide access to ideal spirituality. Of the three, his vision of women at the Dhammamātā Hermitage was quite different from that of the Upāsikā Area. He intended the Hermitage to be a demonstration of his full support for improving conditions for women’s dhamma practice.
Buddhadāsa’s notions of dhammamātā and motherhood
The main source from which we can gain insight into Buddhadāsa’s thoughts about dhammamātā is his handwritten notes in his private diaries. After his death, among his diaries his disciples found four short notes – each comprising a list of items on a piece of paper or a page in his diary – regarding his thoughts on dhammamātā. All four were printed in the handbook for the Dhammamātā Hermitage. In contrast to his earlier disinterest in the social disadvantages of women practitioners, these notes on dhammamātā were filled with respect for their great potential to achieve the goal of Buddhism. In other words, the dhammamātā notes indicate a significant change in Buddhadāsa’s attitude towards women’s practice.
The main points of Buddhadāsa’s dhammamātā notes are well summarised by Ranchuan, who after the former’s passing studied his thoughts in order to launch an actual project in the Dhammamātā Hermitage. In the handbook for the Hermitage, she wrote:
[The main points of Buddhadāsa’s notes were] to give people of the mother gender full opportunities for studying and practising dhamma so that they could best propagate and inherit the Buddhist traditions as female dhammadūta [that is, a dhamma missionary] who would fill the vacant post of the group of bhikkunī who are still lost.
Working from an image of dhammamātā as female practitioners and reading through Buddhadāsa’s notes, however, we could not find any details about their rules and styles, which tend to develop along the lines of monastic tradition. Buddhadāsa never specified in any of his notes whether they should shave their heads or not, what types of costume they should wear or what sort of ceremony they should go through for their initiation. He did not even mention whether they should observe the 311 precepts (like the ancient bhikkunī of the Buddha’s time) or only the eight precepts commonly observed by māe chī in contemporary Thailand. Since there is no mention of māe chī in Buddhadāsa’s notes, we cannot tell whether he thought dhammamātā, who ‘substitute for the bhikkunī,’ should resemble māe chī or not. Whatever the ordination status or styles of practice he had in mind for dhammamātā, the objective was to offer women practitioners who were pursuing the ultimate religious goal an essential benefit, namely the opportunity to cultivate their own spirituality and that of others.
Buddhadāsa’s notes on dhammamātā can be read as his solution to the dilemma of the universality of religion’s ‘essential core,’ which is supposed to be accessible to any group of people and able to solve any kind of problem in any particular set of mundane conditions, depending on which one’s access to the ‘core’ could be either facilitated or hindered. His confidence in women’s abilities in Buddhist practice was reaffirmed by a Pāli phrase which he quoted in one of his dhammamātā notes: ‘‘na hi sabbesuṭhānesu puriso hoti paṇḍito/ itthipi paṇḍita hoti tattha tattha vicakkhanā’ (A man is not wise on all occasions; a woman is also wise, being skilful here and there).
At the same time, aware of the gender inequalities in society, Buddhadāsa clearly outlined how women should be treated. For instance, he wrote of ‘women’s rights, which should be equal to men’s,’ and of ‘fully giving human rights to those who belong to the mother gender.’ Among the many disadvantages faced by women in Buddhism, Buddhadāsa focused on their lack of opportunity for such religious activities as studying, practising and propagating dhamma – opportunities that men take for granted when they ordain as bhikkhu. By establishing the Dhammamātā Hermitage, Buddhadāsa intended to provide women with substantial support equal to that enjoyed by bhikkhu – and by bhikkunī if their ordination lineages had continued to the present. Yet, he wrote that through introducing dhammamātā it was possible to ‘provide the best benefit to people belonging to the mother gender, not necessarily through ordaining as bhikkunī.’ His compensation for women was not an opportunity for ordination equal to that of bhikkunī. In other words, in line with his philosophy, he did not choose ceremonies and forms such as bhikkunī as a solution to gender inequalities in Buddhism. Instead, he urged the endowment of actual benefits that could support women’s spiritual development.
The next question is what Buddhadāsa thought would be the actual benefits for women practitioners. His notes on dhammamātā suggest that there are at least three groups of people whose practices inspired him to work on conceiving an ideal picture of women practitioners. First, it seems that he wanted his female disciples to follow his path, doing just what he did as a bhikkhu. Speaking metaphorically, he wrote in his notes that the Dhammamātā Hermitage should be created as if it contained a deep forest, a university, a sacred hall and a radio station, which represent an ideal environment for ascetic practice, doctrinal study, realisation of religiosity and dhamma propagation respectively. Buddhadāsa envisioned the Hermitage as having a natural environment similar to that of his temple Suan Mōkkh, and as being a place for women practitioners to pursue the highest doctrinal studies, ascetic practice and realisation of the dhamma. He also wrote that, if possible, the Hermitage should ‘publish its own journal,’ just as he published his Phutthasāsanā, ‘to lead the world.’ Furthermore, he promoted ‘international and inter-religious activities’ in the Dhammamātā Hermitage, just as he had been doing in his own work. He set ‘no restriction on nationality’ for those who would receive training there, but he expected members to have ‘knowledge of Thai and at least one more foreign language’ as well as ‘general knowledge of academics and Buddhism.’ He may have expected that these abilities would facilitate discussion about ‘the essence of all religions’ with those from other linguistic and religious backgrounds.
The second group of people from whom Buddhadāsa gained inspiration was other religious believers fully dedicated to their religious practices. One of his notes says that practitioners in the Dhammamātā Hermitage would be ‘equivalent to cloistered Christian nuns, which Buddhism does not yet have.’ He also wrote that as a principle of practice women practitioners at the Hermitage should ‘praise virtues [phra khun] at least five times a day,’ just as Muslim people do in their daily prayers. In order to concentrate on prayers and contemplation, cloistered Catholic nuns seclude themselves in convents, thus limiting their contacts with secular society, while Muslims are taught to make religion their central concern by praying five times a day.
By contrast, only a small number of contemporary Buddhist women practitioners in Thailand have benefited from equivalent opportunities for ascetic practice. Especially when women live in a temple under the authority of a male abbot, their expected roles revolve around rather secular aspects of monastic life such as grocery shopping, food preparation, selling flowers and other offering items to temple visitors, and soliciting donations for temple projects. Even when women seek instruction for their religious practice, the frequent contact with monk teachers can incite vulgar gossip, hinting at possible sexual attraction. Although there are places dedicated exclusively for women practitioners, the number of such places is small and the public is less aware of female head teachers’ abilities than of monks.’ The religious traditions in Christianity and Islam appear to have served as a model for Buddhadāsa to provide an independent place where Buddhist women could teach each other and engage in intensive ascetic practices together as good teachers and friends following the same religious path.
Mothers were the third and the most important group who contributed to Buddhadāsa’s conception of dhammamātā. Women as mothers inspired him to work toward the full realisation of their capabilities in religious practice and teaching, which are often forgotten. In his notes Buddhadāsa repeated many times that mothers should be rewarded with gratitude, and opportunities for the mother gender to practise dhamma should be facilitated. One of his notes says, ‘As a show of loyalty and repayment of obligations to the mother gender – give equivalent [things] to their tired and difficult [contributions as mothers]’ (pen kān-katanyū katawēthī tōp-thāen phēt mandā hai som kap khwām-net-nuai yāk-lambāk). His emphasis on repayment of debts to mothers implies that everybody has been spiritually nurtured by his or her mother’s fundamental teaching during childhood, but many people are not grateful enough to their mothers and do not support women’s spiritual practice.
Apart from his notes on dhammamātā, there were several sermons in his later life in which Buddhadāsa emphasised the importance of mothers in transmitting the most fundamental teachings and building children’s basic personalities. According to Buddhadāsa:
The mother is the creator of the children’s spirit [phū-sāng-winyān hai kāe lūk] more than the father. The mother contributes more than the father to the creation of children’s sensitivity and extensive knowledge of their intellectuality, mentality, and spirituality. Because she teaches children to behave well from birth, she should transmit her personality to them. She teaches whatever fundamental things are required for children to be clever, modest, careful, patient, and diligent. A mother gives these things to children more than a father.
In one of his sermons, by questioning why in Pāli one always says ‘mātā pitā’ (‘mother and father’) instead of ‘father and mother,’ Buddhadāsa suggested mothers’ devotion and intimacy with their children:
With what do children grow? They are brought up with the blood from their mother’s breasts. Mother’s milk is blood in her breasts. Blood in a mother’s breasts transforms itself into milk in order to bring up her children. Children can actually grow with the blood in mother’s breasts. A mother undergoes much pain at the time of childbearing and raising of children. Because of these experiences, a mother feels even more fatigue and pain than a father. Therefore, in Pāli the word ‘mother’ comes before ‘father.’ ... Children stay with their mother for a long period of time until they can be apart from each other. [Even in the case where] the father separates from the children when they are still young, they have their mother’s milk, sleep with their mother, and stay with their mother. So, they receive lots of valuable things from the mother, even more than the father.
Taking his own childhood as an example, Buddhadāsa recalled that his mother taught him to be thrifty. While cooking together in the kitchen, she often said to him, ‘if we don’t know how to use firewood [properly], we’ll be slaves to firewood; if we don’t know how to use water [properly], we’ll be slaves to water.’ She told him to use things economically in order to eliminate excess efforts acquiring them – the same with money. She also taught him how to shred coconut meat. If they did it with all their strength, they would hurt their hands but would not squeeze out much milk; but if they used moderate strength, the shredded meat would be soft and could produce more milk. This was a teaching of moderation (phō dī, literally ‘just enough’).
In another example, Buddhadāsa’s mother often said while they were gardening, ‘if a bird eats [fruit or vegetables in the garden], think that we are receiving merit. If someone steals them, think that we are making an offering.’ Buddhadāsa learned generosity from his mother’s teaching; he related its significance as follows:
let me be a bit proud of myself: no matter how and what I can do today, as my body and self, better than other people, it is all because Mother taught me to become like this. Therefore, whoever has received any useful things from me, please thank my mother as well, because she built my life to be the way it is. In a [Pāli] text entitled Pubbācariya [An ancient teacher], it is said that the mother is the first teacher in the world and created individuals in this way. What should I call this? When we see things in this way, how can we be disloyal to our parents?
Buddhadāsa’s emphasis on repayment of one’s obligation to one’s mother appears to have been rooted in the gratitude which he could not sufficiently express to his own. He said he regretted that his knowledge of dhamma was not deep enough when his mother was alive. She was ‘very interested in dhamma’ (sonchai thamma lua pramān), so soon after his ordination he sent her small notebooks in which he had written what he had just learned from the ecclesiastical examination books. However, according to Buddhadāsa, his was ‘only a childish knowledge of dhamma.’ He said, ‘if at that time I had as much knowledge as I have now, I could have helped my mother and given her great contentment through learning the dhamma. But, she died before I became able to teach the dhamma in depth. This fact always makes me feel desolate and the feeling never disappears.’ Mēttā, his nephew, observed that this feeling of regret seems to have motivated him to work to support women’s spiritual development.
By using the metaphor of mothers nurturing children’s spirituality, Buddhadāsa did not just assign women to be in charge of basic teaching; he also found motherly virtues (phra-khun khōng māe) to be equivalent to the Buddhist paths for transcendence. In a sermon entitled ‘Dhammamātā,’ while not mentioning the Hermitage or the ideal female practitioners to whom he gave that name, he talked of mothers, whose minds are motivated by dhamma dhammamātā. He affirmed mothers’ and women’s ability to achieve dhamma as follows:
Mothers’ virtues are supreme dhamma [borommatham]. They are the highest [virtues/teachings] for children. If they make the best effort, even your mothers can become achievers of dhamma [phū-banlu-tham]. There is a Pāli saying, ‘itthipi paṇḍita hoti tattha tattha vicakkhanā’ [A woman is also wise, being skilful here and there]. If she has deep insight [wichak], meaning that she has a clear understanding in her mind, even a woman can become a learned person [bandit]; not only men can do this. Now, we praise our mothers, maternal virtues, as they can become learned people. People often say that when [men] become ordained as monks, they forget and never think about the virtues of their mothers. This is inappropriate and not right, as it is equivalent to saying that women cannot do anything much. Now let me clearly indicate that a woman can also become a learned person, if she has a clear understanding of dhamma in mind.
Buddhadāsa compared mothers’ virtues to the three aspects of essential doctrine in Buddhism: pariyatti (textual study), paṭipatti (practice), and paṭivedha (realisable or attainable aspect). Among these three, the practical aspect is most striking. He explained the practical aspect of mother’s virtues as ‘navārahaguṇa,’ which means the nine virtues of an arahant (an accomplished one, who is at the final stage of realisation). The navārahaguṇa are also known as ‘buddhaguṇa,’ the Buddha’s virtues, which Thai Buddhists commonly recite as part of their morning chanting. The nine virtues of an arahant or Buddha include: arahaṁ (away from the cycle of causes and effects); sammāsambuddho (fully self-enlightened); vijjācaraṇa-sampanno (perfect in theory and conduct); sugato (going along the right path); lokavidū (knower of the world); anuttaro purisadammasārathi (incomparable leader of human beings to be tamed); satthādevamanussānaṁ (the teacher of both higher and lower standards of people); buddho (the knower, awakened and delighted one); and bhagavā (the distributor, who distributes dhamma for other people to know).
Most temple residents and lay Buddhists who frequently visit temples can recite all nine virtues from memory. They also memorise the meaning of each Pāli word, because many temples in Thailand use the daily Pāli chanting combined with Buddhadāsa’s Thai translation. It seems to have been his strategy to remind people of mothers’ virtues by equating them to those of the Buddha, the enlightened one. In this way he appealed to people to pay more respect and show more gratitude to mothers and those who belonged to the ‘mother gender’ – who were in many cases old women remaining in the countryside, less educated than their children. He concluded the sermon by stating:
In the end, I would say that I have spoken [in this sermon] about mothers’ virtues by way of suggesting that our mothers have the elements [of transcendence]. Considering the nine steps as steps together with virtues, textual studies, practices and realisations, our mothers would advance further and attain [nibbāna]. They are already composed of the elements [of transcendence]. When mothers advance, they will attain [nibbāna]. Mothers are already composed of those virtues. They are dhammamātā composed of the three parts: the nine Buddha virtues, the nine lokuttara dhamma, and navaṅga-satthusāsana.
In summary, Buddhadāsa had no doubt that women – the mother gender – can accomplish the transcendent path of Buddhism, as they demonstrate the virtues of the Buddha and arahant when they play their maternal role. He expected female practitioners, dhammamātā, to perform as ‘mothers of the world’ by fully demonstrating the virtues that they already possessed and by guiding people’s spiritual development. Motherhood was a strong metaphor for him in his work to recognise the potential of women’s pursuit of spirituality and to remind people of its significance.
Motherhood: Social appeal and a question of gender roles
Although the fact tends not to be stressed much in Thailand, one of the strategies often employed for raising the status of women is to advocate the equalisation of women’s and men’s rights. For centuries women’s movements around the world have appealed to the public about the unfairness of sex-based discrimination and certain gender role expectations, such as men functioning as breadwinners versus women as domestic caretakers. Because of those efforts, many institutional inequalities have been eradicated and many people now understand more about women’s rights, but it was a long time before such notions gained general acceptance by society. Not only men but women as well often perceived a sudden change of values as overly radical, even if they felt the unfairness of gender inequality in their everyday lives. In contemporary Thailand, where people respect the hierarchical social order and prefer modest attitudes to those perceived as aggressive, many Buddhist women feel it is difficult to claim a higher social status for their own benefit. So, rather than committing themselves to a movement for social change, many of them struggle towards religious goals under the existing disadvantages, because their access to the ultimate goal of Buddhism is theoretically guaranteed.
Buddhadāsa may have been one of those who felt it difficult to eradicate traditional notions of gender roles, but he did understand that the current situation was unfair for women practitioners. The aim of his dhammamātā proposal may not have been exactly the same as the aim of other Buddhist women’s movements, but there are many commonalities in terms of giving women practitioners appropriate social conditions for their ascetic practices and making use of their achievements for the benefit of society. In order to reach this goal, Buddhadāsa gave up the reintroduction of bhikkunī ordination, as it would no doubt have invited social controversy and suspicion that he was seeking fame, as was the case in the Thai public’s reaction to Narin’s movement. Instead, Buddhadāsa used the notion of motherhood, which had more social appeal and would provoke less conflict. In fact, many senior māe chī and other types of female practitioners are called ‘khun māe’ or ‘māe’ (both mean ‘mother,’ the first being more polite), terms which convey a sense of respect for, and intimacy towards, older women. When the notion of motherhood is applied to the new model of female practitioners, dhammamātā, the Pāli term ‘mātā’ is combined with dhamma; this evokes a deeper impression than the colloquial term ‘māe.’
What is more, the sense of reverence conveyed by dhammamātā is something that can be accepted as ‘natural’ and ‘appropriate’ but which hardly connotes aggressiveness or challenge to superiors in the traditional hierarchy. Buddhadāsa’s intention in proposing dhammamātā as an alternative to bhikkunī seems to have been to avoid unnecessary conflict with the existing authorities of bhikkhu and the Thai Saṅgha, which would likely be unavoidable in the case of an attempt to restore bhikkunī ordination, and which could even reduce the benefits for women. It was by use of the notion of motherhood that he could expect women practitioners to obtain the most benefit and to be granted a role equivalent to that of the ancient bhikkunī.
Traditionally motherhood is one of the resources through which Thai women can acquire prestige. By giving birth, a woman in rural Thailand assumes the title of ‘mother’ and becomes responsible for feeding her family members. As a mother she nurtures her children by providing nutrition during her pregnancy, gives them milk after childbirth and prepares food for them when they grow up. Because of the matrilocal tendency and high male mobility in traditional Thailand, mothers take more responsibility than fathers for the family’s economic and social life. Thus, Thai people tend to feel more indebted to their mothers than to their fathers. Schoolchildren assert that the person they love the most is their mother, and many women express their satisfaction with their maternal role, saying that they want to be reborn as women.
The ‘milk price’ (khānom) which Thai people owe to their mothers is repeatedly emphasised in life transition rituals such as weddings, pre-ordinations and tonsures. In particular, at a pre-ordination ceremony called tham khwan nāk (strengthening the spirit essence of the nāga), a traditional singer is hired to perform a song praising maternal virtues. Because it is believed that a mother can receive great merit by her son’s entrance into the monkhood, ordination constitutes his repayment of his indebtedness to his mother. Singers are expected to sing movingly so that the ordination candidates and other members of the audiences will be reminded of their debt to their mothers and begin to cry. Singers who can make people cry are popular and highly paid.
One of the songs for the tham khwan nāk ceremony praises maternal virtues as follows:
[The preceptor] accomplishes the ordination ceremony, so the candidate can become a sprout of a victorious ascetic and holy sage, and he can thus dedicate his heart of loyalty to repay his obligation to his parents who gave him birth. No merits that have been accumulated could be compared to this great status of ordination. Despite the greatest virtues of a mother, nowadays people tend to look down on the mother’s virtues as only twelve, while they weigh the father’s as twenty. Such a saying does not agree with Buddha’s words. In the Maṅgaladīpanī [text] the Buddha appropriately said that a mother’s virtue is unlimited. Even with the whole universe, her virtue is incomparably large. Even if we allot mother sixteen, which is equivalent to the half of the great universe, her virtue is still much heavier. For this reason, the Lord Buddha went up to the Tāvatiṁsa heaven of the Thirty-three Gods and said that he would show his gratitude for his mother’s virtues, so his insight is fully inserted in all the Three Baskets of the Tipiṭaka [the Buddhist scriptures]. When picking up the virtues of both the Suttapiṭaka [‘the Basket of Discourses,’ collections of Buddha’s sermons] and the Vinayapiṭaka [‘the Basket of Discipline,’ comprising the corpus of rules governing monastic discipline], they are still lighter than the virtue of the Lord Buddha’s mother, but the virtue of the Abhidhammapiṭaka [‘the Basket of Higher Doctrine,’ containing philosophical and psychological matters] is equivalent to it. Therefore, the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma of the absolute truth and extremely pleased both his mother and the celestials. With this teaching, the Lord Buddha could repay his debt to his mother. So candidate, fully consider by your brilliance how much virtue your mother had. When you ordain as an ascetic bhikkhu, a son in Buddhism, you deserve to have it said that you are repaying an obligation to your mother once, but it is still not equivalent to her virtues. Nevertheless, whenever you have a mind seriously venerated by your diligence and study topics in the Tipiṭaka seriously, you can pick up something from it to explain to your mother so that she could understand clearly and be pleased blissfully. Stay on the Noble Eightfold Path by following the holy tradition, then you will repay your debt to your mother.
The legend in the Abhidhammapiṭaka about the Buddha’s ascension to the Tāvatiṁsa heaven to preach to his deceased mother is often referred to as an exemplary model for monks to follow. They are encouraged to study and practise dhamma diligently so that they can teach their mothers and please them with tastes of the dhamma – which is also considered as a repayment of their indebtedness as sons. After listening to this story repeatedly, few people can deny the significance of motherly virtues. Buddhadāsa’s notion of dhammamātā was derived from such a cultural context, and it appealed to people’s traditional sentiment towards mothers.
Nevertheless, the concept of dhammamātā was not simply a repetition of the commonplace idea of motherhood. Motherhood pre-eminently conveys an image of life-giver and nurturer. By extending mothers’ image as nurturers, women are often portrayed as ‘mothers’ who feed their ordained sons daily and as important supporters of the Saṅgha. The work of providing material support for monks is often considered particularly important for women. Barbara Andaya has argued that because of the traditional respect for women’s nurturing role, through which they can acquire merit to improve their future state of existence, Southeast Asian women, who are said to enjoy a relatively high social status, have accepted Theravāda Buddhism even though it assigns them a low status. Nevertheless, with women’s role stereotyped as a supporting one, there will be little advancement of their image as renunciants practising dhamma. Such images of women and mothers are based on the premise that they are just lay people remaining in household life and only pursuing merit accumulation as their Buddhist practice. In contrast, Buddhadāsa, by highlighting the mothers’ role as children’s first teachers of dhamma, set forth a new image of women as religious teachers. This is the very image and role that Buddhist women practitioners have wanted; by proposing the notion of dhammamātā, Buddhadāsa conferred it on them while avoiding conflict with the dominant conception of women in Thai society.
Although the notion of dhammamātā is an interesting attempt to enhance women’s status and opportunities in ascetic Buddhist practice based on local tradition, a possible limitation should also be noted. From a feminist point of view, the notion of motherhood always places women in a dilemma. In a study based on American society, Evelyn Nakano Glenn indicated that on the one hand, some consider the function of biological reproduction as the first division of labour and the original source of women’s subordination. They argue that the physical task of childbearing led to the restriction of women’s mobility and to the expectation that they do domestic work. On the other hand, some women are reluctant to give up their particular experience of becoming mothers, as motherhood is a powerful bodily experience that induces an emotional link with the infant as well as creativity and insight. Furthermore, in some societies women can gain status when they produce heirs; therefore, motherhood is a source of status and privilege. However, at the same time this status and privilege serve to strengthen the ideology of their subordination. Thus, motherhood is a paradoxical subject for feminists: Should they perceive women indiscriminately as human beings or claim special identities and positions as women? The latter perspective tends to be romanticized and used to justify assigning them to subordinate roles.
Dhammamātā who live as celibate renunciants may not be much troubled by their biological reproduction function or subordination to the patriarchal family system, yet some of Buddhadāsa’s statements about mothers’ duties may require careful reading. He occasionally said that mothers’ nurturing role in teaching children fundamental religious notions should not disappear:
Women’s duties and rights are true and thought to exist. These are for human beings’ mastery of the world; they are not for rights equal and identical to men’s. Instead, women’s duties and rights are to accept the duties to discipline their children so that they can obtain true and perfect humanity. Women do not have to scramble for the duties that fathers perform as people often do. If they did, the world would lose the mothers.
Although Buddhadāsa expressed his support for women’s rights in several places, including his notes on dhammamātā, he did not seem to deny traditional gender roles. I have not found in his sermon any suggestion that fathers should take more responsibility for the nurturing of children. He may have taken it for granted that mothers’ roles had to be played by mothers, not by fathers. In that case, his notion of motherhood may bind women primarily to maternal roles and limit their opportunities to take up other alternatives in society outside the home. It is a task for both female and male disciples of Buddhadāsa to take best advantage of his proposal of dhammamātā for practical benefit. He did not instruct his disciples to rigorously follow any teaching or tradition; they are allowed to develop alternative interpretations about his notion of motherhood.
The Dhammamātā Hermitage has been offering retreat sessions to female practitioners since December 1999, but as yet no one has declared herself a dhammamātā. In order to become one, a person is required to have good qualifications and confidence in herself as an exemplary model of a renunciant female practitioner and dhamma teacher who well represents the late Buddhadāsa’s conception. Most women can become mothers, but dhammamātā who embody the ideal maternal virtues that he described would probably be charismatic individuals. In Thailand – and perhaps elsewhere as well – individual practitioners’ actualisations of spirituality are the most potent resources for change. The presence of capable female renunciant teachers and their demonstration of admirable spirituality can establish people’s faith in female renunciants and further expand women’s opportunities for dhamma practice.
It is clear, however, that dhammamātā would have less social impact than bhikkunī who don the same yellow robes as bhikkhu and follow almost the same monastic rules. No matter how much the notion of mother can influence people to pay more respect to women in society, Thais will never place ordained individuals lower than their mothers. Buddhadāsa grounded his reluctance concerning the restoration of bhikkunī ordination in his philosophy, but in his teaching we can also find some ideas which could support the project. For instance, although the lineage of bhikkunī precept transmission was disrupted in the Theravāda tradition, the possibility of applying the precedent of the first bhikkunī ordination by the Buddha could be considered and supported by Buddhadāsa’s favourite reference to Kālāma Sutta and the original Buddhism in the Buddha’s time. Just as Buddhadāsa insisted, in the contemporary debate on bhikkunī restoration many people who are opposed to bhikkunī ordination also refer to the universal access to nibbāna without regard to gender or ordained status, arguing that it is unnecessary for women to become ordained as bhikkunī. Buddhadāsa was compassionate to women practitioners in difficulty, therefore he developed his thoughts on dhammamātā; yet we have to conclude that as far as the issue of women’s ordination rights were concerned, he was not radical enough to confront the status quo in present Thai Buddhism.
However, we may argue that Buddhadāsa’s proposal of dhammamātā was significant because it led to the establishment of the Dhammamātā Hermitage, one of the few places in Thailand where women can receive full support for their doctrinal study, ascetic practices and realisation of spiritual virtues. It should be noted that when one can embody overwhelming spirituality, Thai Buddhists do recognise it and pay true respect to that person, regardless of ordained status or gender. Coming to this point, Buddhadāsa and other conservative monks and māe chī who oppose bhikkunī ordination are right: worldly status and gender difference have no meaning, as spiritual qualities of an individual transcend these matters. It is a chicken-and-egg question: Which should we look at first, social conditions for ascetic practice or spiritual excellence which overwhelms any worldly circumstances? Some may argue that appropriate social conditions for ascetic practice are significant factors leading practitioners to enlightenment, while others may insist that individual religiosities which develop through ascetic practice are the most significant factor in overcoming mundane difficulties. Both are true; it is only a matter of how individuals, society, religious and civil authorities recognise the value of spirituality and how they offer support to renunciant practitioners. What Buddhadāsa offered was dhammamātā status and Dhammamātā Hermitage as an alternative to bhikkunī ordination.