Making Fields of Merit

Buddhist Female Ascetics and Gendered Orders in Thailand

by Monica Lindberg Falk

  • Published: 2007
  • Pages: 299 pp.
  • illustrated
  • Series number: 2
Available from NIAS Press worldwide except North America
ISBN Hardback: 978 87 91114 65 6, £45.00 (June 2007)
ISBN Paperback: 978 87 91114 019 5, £16.99 ()

The growth in recent decades of self-governing nunneries and the increasing interest of Thai women in a Buddhist monastic life are notable changes in the religion–gender dynamic. This anthropological study addresses religion and gender relations, analysing this through the lens of the lives, actions and role in Thai society of Buddhist nuns.

Religion plays a central role in Thai society with Buddhism intertwined in the daily lives of the people. Religion also plays an important role in establishing gender boundaries. The growth in recent decades of self-governing nunneries (samnak chii) and the increasing interest of Thai women in a Buddhist monastic life are notable changes in the religion–gender dynamic.

This anthropological study addresses religion and gender relations through the lens of the lives, actions and role in Thai society of an order of Buddhist nuns (mae chii). It presents an unique ethnography of these Thai Buddhist nuns, examines what it implies to be a female ascetic in contemporary Thailand and analyses how the ordained state for women fits into the wider gender patterns found in Thai society. The study also deals with the nuns’ agency in creating religious space and authority for women. In addition, it raises questions about how the position of Thai Buddhist nuns outside the Buddhist sangha affects their religious legitimacy and describes recent moves to restore a Theravada order of female monks.

 

author image not supplied

Monica Lindberg Falk received her Ph.D. from Gothenburg University’s Department of Social Anthropology in 2002. She is now conducting post-doctoral research and teaches at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University, Sweden.

Monica Lindberg Falk received her Ph.D. from Gothenburg University’s Department of Social Anthropology in 2002. She is now conducting post-doctoral research and teaches at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University, Sweden. Her research interests include gender, Buddhism, anthropology of disaster, ethnography, religious movements, women’s movements, ritual and power, hiv/aids, religion and development and social change in South-east Asia. Her scholarship includes extensive fieldwork in Thailand. Her current research project is on gender and Buddhism’s role in the recovery process after the tsunami catastrophe in Thailand. The project is funded by the Swedish Research Council, VR. She has published several articles on gender and Buddhism and her recent book is the monograph Making Fields of Merit: Buddhist Female Ascetics and Gendered Orders in Thailand, (2007).

We were pleased to interview Monica in August 2010 at the Euroseas conference in Gothenburg. Here, she discussed the place of women in Buddhism, the growing push for female ordination and how Thai Buddhism is much more patriarchal than Buddhism per se. Monica also recounted how she became interested in this subject. Click here to view the film of this interview.

 

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by Rodney Sebastian, National University of Singapore
From journal:
Asian Journal of Social Science, 38 (2010)

Monica Lindberg Falk presents an in-depth ethnography of the Mae Chii in Thailand. Her rigorous methodology, which included participant observation by staying at Samnak Chiis (mae chiis’ temples) renders a fine grained ethnology of some groups of the mae chiis.

Monica Lindberg Falk presents an in-depth ethnography of the Mae Chii in Thailand. Her rigorous methodology, which included participant observation by staying at Samnak Chiis (mae chiis’ temples) renders a fine grained ethnology of some groups of the mae chiis. … Falk’s work is to be commended for eradicating the stereotype that mae chiis are elderly widowed women or young women who have been ill or suffered misfortune and for showing that they, in fact, come from diverse backgrounds and that their motives for receiving ordination are mostly based on genuine spiritual convictions.

by Vanessa R. Sasson, Marianopolis College
From journal:
Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 15 (2008)

Making Fields of Merit: Buddhist Female Ascetics and Gendered Orders in Thailand by Monica Lindberg Falk is a fascinating study of the Thai mae chiis and will undoubtedly become required reading for anyone interested in Thai Buddhism or female Buddhist asceticism.

Making Fields of Merit: Buddhist Female Ascetics and Gendered Orders in Thailand by Monica Lindberg Falk is a fascinating study of the Thai mae chiis and will undoubtedly become required reading for anyone interested in Thai Buddhism or female Buddhist asceticism. … Overall, this study of the mae chiis in Thailand is an excellent contribution to Buddhist Studies, Gender Studies, and specifically scholarship on female asceticism. I eagerly look forward to reading more of Falk’s work.

by Hiroko Kawanami, Lancaster University
From journal:
ASEASUK News, 47 (2010)

Overall, the book is an excellent introduction for students and those who are interested in gaining further insight into the religious experiences of Buddhist women and nuns in Thailand.

Overall, the book is an excellent introduction for students and those who are interested in gaining further insight into the religious experiences of Buddhist women and nuns in Thailand. It is also sympathetically written reflecting the deep affection the author has for her informants whose life as Buddhist female renunicants is by no means easy, as we analyse and objectify their daily struggle from comfortable chairs.

by Susan M. Darlington, Hampshire College
From journal:
Pacific Affairs, 82(1), 2009

The issue of female monastics has long been debated in Thailand. Lindberg Falk expands the discussion through an in-depth, insightful and provocative ethnography of mae chii, the largest category of Thai female Buddhist ascetics.

The issue of female monastics has long been debated in Thailand. Lindberg Falk expands the discussion through an in-depth, insightful and provocative ethnography of mae chii, the largest category of Thai female Buddhist ascetics. She challenges the predominant scholarly interpretations of mae chii as providing a means of escape for women from poverty, bad marriages, broken hearts and other life problems. Instead, Lindberg Falk portrays the genuine spiritual motivations of these women, and their religious lives devoted to study and meditation practice. … Rather than disrupting Thai society and creating a sense of disorder, as many in Thailand perceive them, mae chii offer an alternative to women long left outside the realm of the male sangha, or order of Buddhist monks.

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