Thailand’s young Buddhist nuns challenge social conventions

April 24, 2012

(Novice Thai nuns are seen before they receive food from people during the Songkran festival at the Sathira-Dhammasathan Buddhist meditation centre in Bangkok April 13, 2011. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang)

Beam Atchimapon is already three days late for the new school term in her native city, the Thai capital of Bangkok – but for a good cause.

The nine-year-old is part of a small but growing group of Thai girls who choose to spend part of the school holiday as Buddhist nuns, down to having their heads shaven.

The temporary ordination of young men has long been part of Thai culture, with men spending a few days as monks and returning to their normal professions after time at a monastery.

But the ordination of “mae ji” or “nuns” is less common, and the idea that women should not play an active role in monastic life still prevails among more conservative Thais.

Fully ordained Buddhist nuns are not legally recognized, as they are in Myanmar and Sri Lanka – one sign of the inequality women still face in certain fields in Thailand.

“Thailand does not fully recognize the role of Buddhist nuns,” said Sansanee Sthuratsuta, a nun and founder of the Sathira Dammasathan center, a learning centre on the outskirts of Bangkok that is something of a green oasis.

Sansanee used to be a celebrated television personality in Thailand but gave up her fame for life as a nun 35 years ago. Her centre allows men and women to come and practice meditation, learn yoga and take part in retreats, part of its mission to make Buddhism an integral part of peoples’ lives.

She started the ordination of young nuns 3 years ago to raise awareness of nuns in the nation, where their role as spiritual leaders takes a backseat to their male counterparts.

“Nuns need to be educated. This is more important than a law that elevates the status of nuns in Thailand. If society can rely on nuns then they can be spiritual leaders,” she said.

Read the full story by Amy Sawitta Lefevre here.
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