Helping the daughters of Buddha
Interview with Dr Chatsurman Kabilsingh
by Monte Leach
An interview with Thai activist and author Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh about her work in expanding women's awareness of their potential, particularly in the context of Buddhism's dogmas.
Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh is a scholar and activist in social justice and women’s issues in Asia. She is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Thammasat University in Bangkok, and author of the book Thai Women in Buddhism. She is also past President of Sakyadhita (Daughters of Buddha) International, a Buddhist women’s organization. Monte Leach interviewed her for Share International.
Sl: You speak often about the spiritual potential of women. Could you elaborate on that?
Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh: The Buddha was the first religious leader who came forward to say that women are equal to men in their spiritual potentiality. As Buddhists, we should take this opportunity to express this potentiality at its best. But in certain countries, Buddhist women haven’t been able to receive ordination, for example, in the Theravadan Buddhist countries like Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. We haven’t had an ordination lineage for a long time. For the full participation of women in the religious field, we should provide them with the spiritual space so that they can express themselves equally to men.
SI: Do you see being able to become ordained as a Buddhist nun as being key in expressing one’s spiritual potential?
Dr CK: Yes, but to be ordained is not an end in itself. It is only a means. Once a woman has that ordained status, she can engage herself in doing many good works for society, like teaching, preaching for women, and so on.
SI: What do you mean by preaching for women?
Dr CK: Giving Buddha’s teaching to women. Some of the problems that women have cannot be handled by monks. If I have a problem about abortion or menopause, for example, the monks cannot handle these kinds of questions. If ordained women helped the monks guide the women, it would be much better. There are certain kinds of work, like running an orphanage, taking care of young children, that monks cannot do. At least they haven’t been doing them in my country. If we have fully ordained nuns, we could open up the horizon of different activities for women.
SI: Is there a certain respect that being ordained confers on someone?
Dr CK: An ordained person becomes a ‘field of merit.’ People believe that if they make an offering to a monk, they get merit. But if they make an offering to a woman, they don’t get merit, because women are not ordained. When there is this kind of belief in society, you have to provide a space for women to be ordained also, so that they can better heal the ills of society.
SI: Healing the ills of society is one of the goals of your work?
Dr CK: Yes. I see that we are living in a world full of crisis. We are being hypocritical about many things. When we have so many crises facing us, how can we say: "You are a woman, don’t do that, it’s only for men." Why can’t men and women help each other so that we can have a better society, live in a better world, and enter the new century in a better fashion?
SI: What’s been the response in Thailand and throughout the world to this approach?
Dr CK: Internationally, people tend to understand better. In my work in Thailand, I do not talk about ordination of women because that is a very sensitive issue. I have to work at the grassroots, and talk at the level of people’s understanding. I realize that women in my country are not ready yet for ordination because they are not prepared. Right now we are giving them Buddhist education and training. When they are committed enough in their own practice, they will be committed enough to start wanting to lead a committed life, and then they will ask for ordination. Then we will go to the next step.
People don’t understand what the connection is between this ordination problem and the problem of prostitutes, for example. I try to bring this out in my presentations. When women cannot become ordained, because the image of women is so negative, that pushes women to the other end of the spectrum. That’s why the door to brothels is open for women. But why are the doors closed for women to become nuns? I talk about the need to see social issues as holistic. You cannot separate them.
SI: It is clear that women are considered second-class citizens in many cultures. Can you speak about how that relates to your work?
Dr CK: For example, women are told that they are unclean. This has nothing to do with Buddhism, but it has been passed on in our society as Buddha’s teaching, in Thailand, and most Buddhist countries. Women are not allowed to circumambulate at the holy places, for example. The problem is that women menstruate, and the men cannot understand that, so therefore they bar women. They cannot differentiate between menstruating women or non-menstruating women, so they bar all women from entering the holy places. This separates people, and gives negative values to women. Women who are born into this kind of tradition don’t have a critical mind, they just believe that they are born lower, unclean.
Further, people say that women are an enemy to the monks’ purity. This is true in the teaching. But the next line says that men are also an enemy to the purity of women. But in our country we have only monks, so monks quote the first phrase, but never the second. The result is that women tend to have a very negative image of themselves. "We are the ones who become obstacles to the monks’ spiritual development." It is as though we don’t have spiritual development for ourselves. This type of social value needs to be re-examined.
SI: How do you help change that?
Dr CK: It is very difficult. In my own small work, I conduct retreats. Women who are interested in Buddhist practice come and discuss these issues, and try to get rid of these negative ideas. But some of these ideas are so ingrained that even three or four retreats help only a little. Educated people tend to change more easily, but educated people are only the minority.
SI: Are there any other points that you think are important for our readers to know about your work, or about women and Buddhism?
Dr CK: First, it is very important, not only for Buddhist women but for women in general, to realize their own potential. Second, women should be able to generate what you call ‘positive energy’ much more than they are doing now. Positive energy means feeling positive in your work, feeling positive about your life, feeling happy about being. Women must feel positive about being women. We have to start building this energy. For instance, when I talk to you I feel positive, I have no fear. When I have no fear, I can talk to you openly.
This is the positive energy that women must learn to build in themselves, through education and practice. When I say practice, I mean Buddhist practice if I am a Buddhist, Christian practice if I am a Christian. We must go back to the spirit of Christ, rather than church, because sometimes church becomes an obstacle. Go back to the spirit of Christ and try to understand what Christ meant to you. When you do that you are strengthened, and you become a wholesome person. It’s very important not only for women, but for both men and women, to be wholesome. I believe that there is an energy radiating from each person. When you talk to a positive person, you are happy because of the positive energy coming from that person. When you talk with someone who’s very negative, you feel like a flower that has hot water poured on it.
It’s very important to look to the future with positive energy. It’s very important that we do not leave our brothers behind. There’s so much to be done in this world, we have to help each other. We have to feel responsible for the future of the world, together.
SI: You also talk about selfless action in your public talks.
Dr CK: In order to have selfless action, first of all you must have faith in something. For myself, I have faith in the Buddha. I believe that he was enlightened. But his enlightenment is not good enough for me. I must also believe that I can be enlightened. This faith is the foundation of my commitment. The faith becomes commitment when I leap into action. If I have faith and don’t express that faith, it’s no good. Faith must come with action. In the Buddhist practice, there’s the teaching about letting go of yourself. In one interview I had with a German journalist, he asked me how I deal with ego. It’s very important when you work that you watch yourself all the time and don’t let your ego blow up. This ego looms large very easily. I was telling the journalist that I keep a needle with myself all the time to puncture this balloon.
Often, especially in my meditation before I give a presentation, before I give teaching, I make a very committed wish that this is not for my own glory, this isn’t for myself. Whatever I say, may it be for the good of others. In this group of 100 people listening to me, if one person picks up my words and improves their life, that’s good enough for me. The talk is not for the glorification of myself but for the good of others.
At the same time, you get involved in the action of helping others; it goes together. Being socially engaged, without watching your ego, is no good, because you can get caught up in this clinging onto yourself so easily. If someone says something critical about you, you cannot accept it because your ego has become so much bigger than yourself. Practice in meditation helps you to balance yourself, come down to earth, and puncture this balloon. Keep puncturing this balloon all the time, don’t let it get bigger than yourself, so that you can continue on with your selfless action.
SI: How did your faith lead to action with you?
Dr CK: If someone says: "I have faith in Jesus Christ but I never lead my life according to what Christ said," that’s only lip service. In Buddhism, you take refuge in the Buddha as a teacher, you take refuge in the dharma, His teaching, and the sangha, His disciples, who would lead us towards the path.
When I say I take refuge in the Buddha, I am not talking only as a teacher. He is dead and gone, 2,500 years ago; He can’t be of any help to me. But I take refuge because I believe in His Buddhahood, I believe that He was an enlightened person. I believe that that enlightenment is real ‘ it was real then, it’s real now, and it’s real for me. This is the conviction, when you take this into yourself.
In my life, I aim for enlightenment. But not for myself. I want to be enlightened, only because once I’m enlightened I would have much more capacity to help others, to help all sentient beings. This kind of conviction must be very strong in order to lead you to action.
From the December 1994 issue of Share International