An American Buddhist nun said the US Embassy rescued her from Thai men who threatened to kidnap her and later allegedly burned down her temple dormitory because she intentionally disobeys Thai Buddhist clergy by supporting women to become nuns.
Leaura Naomi’s confrontation earlier this year is the most vivid example of a wider revolution by women across Southeast Asia demanding equality to allow female ordinations within Theravada Buddhism.
In Theravada — the oldest and more conservative of Buddhism’s two main branches — a male monk’s ancient Pali-language title is “bhikkhu.” A nun is known as a “bhikkhuni.”
The vast majority of Thailand’s population are Theravada Buddhists. Theravada also exists in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia.
In Thailand many, if not most, families arrange for at least one young adult son to live in a temple — perhaps for several days or a season — to be ordained as a novice or monk. Ordination bestows spiritual “merit” on the family, which is a major reason why the ceremony is coveted.
But a 1928 proclamation by Thailand’s all-male Buddhist Sangha Supreme Council forbids female ordination, frustrating many daughters and their parents because no equivalent merit can be earned by women. Historians say bhikkhunis flourished for 1,000 years in India and Sri Lanka but Islam and war caused them to almost disappear.
“My name is Bhikkhuni Doctor Lee. We don’t use last names,” Naomi said in an interview. The American ascetic was wrapped in a robe styled differently but the same saffron color as a Thai monk’s robe.
More than 2,500 years ago, “in the time of the Buddha, we had bhikkhunis and they wore similar attire,” said Naomi, 56, who also has a shaven head in keeping with Buddhist tradition.
“I built a temple three times in Thailand. We got shut down two times and the third time we were arsoned.” Naomi said a gang of Thai men are still threatening her and her “temple” in Rayong, a tourist-friendly beach town situated 144 kilometers from Bangkok.
Her earthly woes began in 2016 with “eight men, drunken and shouting, ‘We want the bhikkhuni out of the village. We want the American out of the village. If you don’t get out of the village, we’re going to burn your temple down’,” she said, recounting the violent incident.
“In Thailand, there have been four kidnapping attempts on my life. But thank goodness for the American Embassy,” she said. An official at the US Embassy in Bangkok “saved my life”, Naomi said, after telephoning him for help during her latest crisis earlier this year when a gang surrounded her temple.
She said the US official helped to get the local police to intervene. About 10 days after that confrontation, some men set fire to the women’s dormitory where Naomi lived with four Thai women, she said. She continues to run her International Women’s Meditation Center which she describes as a “temple”, despite the threats.
Born into a Christian family in Yonkers, New York, Naomi received a PhD in geography at Colorado University and taught at Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan universities. She ordained as a bhikkhuni in Colorado 25 years ago and came to Thailand in 2000.
“I read that they have Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, but not the bhikkhuni thing.” She decided to “introduce this new cultural element, then it could perhaps take off.”
More than 300,000 monks and novices live in Thailand’s 30,000 temples. There are hundreds of unrecognized Thai bhikkhunis, but Ms. Naomi is the only American Buddhist nun residing in Thailand.
Another American known as Venerable Pannavati, who claims she’s the world’s only black Buddhist nun, often visits Thailand to help Naomi ordain nuns. Pannavati, 68, a thrice-married mother, is co-founder and Buddhist abbot of Heartwood Refuge, an interfaith center in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Born a Baptist in Washington DC, she went to First Rising Mount Zion church. Pannavati later became a Pentecostal Holy Roller — speaking in tongues — and then a charismatic Christian before embracing Buddhism. Pannavati first came to Thailand in 2008 on Naomi’s invitation.
“She was looking for [foreign] nuns who were not afraid to ordain [Thai women],” Pannavati said in an interview while visiting Bangkok. “I helped Dr Lee ordain. And it was good. We did that for several years.” Pannavati says she would “fly in, arrange an ordination, and fly out.”
Venerable Dhammananda, a Thai national, became a nun after being ordained in 2003 in Sri Lanka where the Theravada tradition was revived. Formerly known as Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh when she was a Buddhist philosophy lecturer at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, she divorced her husband, became celibate and explained her religious decisions to her children.
Dhammananda now heads an unrecognized Theravada temple near Bangkok. Her Thai mother established the temple in 1971 after ordaining in Taiwan which allows, similar to China, Mahayana Buddhist female ordination. Dhammananda’s Thai grandmother also ordained overseas.
“I have given ordination to 700 women. They are working women, so after nine days [at her temple] they return to their life,” Dhammananda said during a recent news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.
She is also active elsewhere in Asia. “In Tibetan tradition, they have only female novices. They don’t have fully ordained [nuns]. They are also struggling. I have been trying to work with His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] since 1980, but it has not been successful,” she said.
“He said he would wait to see if some senior [Tibetan] monks would consider joining him or not. That will never happen,” Dhammananda predicted. “I just came back from Myanmar. I tried to push for fully ordained female monks in Myanmar. Not possible.”
She said a Myanmar woman who ordained in 2003 in Sri Lanka returned to her country — also known as Burma — but was jailed for 76 days. Upon release, she settled in America, Dhammananda said. “Laos and Cambodia are following after Thailand because many of the monks come here for education,” and forbid female ordination.
Dhammananda and others recently established a Network of Asian Theravada Bhikkhunis to push for equality. Male-to-female transgender women, who want to be ordained as nuns, present a special case, she said.
Recently, a “woman came to me. And if she did not tell me she was a he before, I would not know. He had breasts just like women. And he had his penis removed.”
“Supposing if this person asked me for ordination as bhikkhuni…should I or should I not give him ordination?” One respected senior Thai monk told Dhammananda, “‘If she has the physical form of a woman,’ I should be able to give her ordination.”
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist, reporting news from Asia since 1978