In recent centuries, the religious authority figures of Theravāda Buddhism were only bhikkhu, fully ordained monks. However, during the Buddha’s time, women were allowed to be ordained as bhikkhunıī, fully ordained nuns at the status equivalent to bhikkhu. The female ordination lineage was disrupted some centuries later, and since then Theravāda Buddhist women have had to do their ascetic practice with the status of lay devotee, rather than the ordained status of bhikkhunıī. In Thailand the head-shaven female devotees who don the white robes are called māe chıī, and they are not given as much honor, support, or opportunity to play religious roles as male bhikkhu enjoy.
The recent bhikkhunıī movement in Thailand was initiated by the novice ordination of the famous bhikkhunıī advocate scholar Chatsumarn Kabilsingh in Sri Lanka in February 2001, when she took the monastic name Dhammanandā. Her novice ordination attracted the attention of Thai media and foreign scholars as the new beginning of a female monastic order in Thailand. Most previous studies on Thai bhikkhunıī restoration have focused on the public debates about the rationales given for her ordination and negative critiques of them; it was for the most part taken for granted that Dhammanandā was singlehandedly leading and representing the bhikkhunıī restoration movement in Thailand.
The purpose of this paper is to trace the development of the Thai bhikkhunī restoration movement after Dhammanandā’s sāmaṇerī (novice) ordination in February 2001, particularly focusing on Thai sāmaṇerī (later bhikkhunıī) who were previously māe chī. Dhammanandā did play a significant role in transmitting her vast knowledge of the history of bhikkhunıī lineage and vinaya (monastic disciplines) to Thai māe chıī who were interested in bhikkhunıī ordination; however, only a few of them could receive her assistance for their ordination. The number of Thai sāmaṇerī increased after an old Thai monk in Yasōthōn province ordained his māe chıī disciple as a sāmaṇerī in November 2003, and subsequently more māe chıī came to him for their ordinations. Particularly, the members of the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards Committee assumed a key role in connecting māe chıī candidates to the Yasōthōn preceptor monk. Nevertheless, the development of Thai women’s sāmaṇerī and bhikkhunıī ordination was not a continuous process. On the one hand, several unfortunate sāmaṇerī and bhikkhunıī met sufficiently serious obstacles that they disrobed to be māe chıī again; on the other hand, a group of better supported māe chıī and sāmaṇerī chose Sri Lanka as their place of ordination and contributed to the growth of the number of Thai sāmaṇerī and bhikkhunıī. In conclusion, the paper indicates that the bhikkhunıī movement is not solely represented by urban intellectuals such as Dhammanandā, but is even more significantly supported by conscious local māe chıī determined to overcome their unfair situation by taking up the yellow monastic robes as sāmaṇerī and bhikkhunıī.