By Emma Kiedyk
Martin Seeger is ‘a rare case among western scholars of Thai Buddhism and culture’, says Thai thinker and activisit Sulak Sivaraksa in Seeds of Peace (Vol 35, No.3)¹. The book ‘Gender and the Path to Awakening’, published by Silkworm and NIAS Press, is ‘an impressive and rich work, an eye-opener’ according to Sivaraksa. Seeger’s argument is ‘successful in its explanatory power to understand the role of women at the highest levels of Buddhist achievements’ writes Brooke Shedneck in a review published in Journal of Asian Studies². Shedneck is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.
While the book focuses on long-term textual and ethnographic research on six remarkable female practitioners, Gender and the Path to Awakening also includes interviews and a careful study of sermons, hagiographies and hitherto unstranslated and rare Thai sources. Thus, this book examines the social backgrounds, modes of expression, veneration and historical contexts of Thai women pursuing the Buddhist ideal. As Martin states in the introduction, ‘My purpose is not to reconstruct the lives of the women of my study as they were but to describe and analyze the ways in which their lives have been depicted, constructed, and understood in relation to issues of gender”. Overall, Seeger considers trends and changes over the past 140 years in the practices of female renunciants and their devotees, offering new insights into the complexities of female renunciation and gender relations in modern Thai Buddhism.
After an Introduction (which you can read here), chapter 1 ‘The Female in Thai Buddhism’ introduces some of the key concepts of the book and reviews relevant previous literature in the topic. Chapter 2, ‘Biography and Hagiography: Female Practitioners in Modern Thai Buddhism’ presents six female practitioners in Modern Thai Buddhism (more on this later). Chapter 3, ‘Female Sainthood in Modern Thai Buddhism’ examines the concept of sainthood in Thai Buddhism context, weaving in examples from female practitioners. Chapter 4 is titled ‘Material Expressions of Female Sainthood’ and it discusses material culture and what it can teach us about Modern Thaiu Buddhism. Chapter 5, ‘The Importance of Orality and Memory in Spiritual Practice’ discusses the importance of orality and memory with regards to seven case studies. Chapter 6, ‘Experiencing Gender’ focuses on how Thai female practitioners relate to issues regarding gender. A conclusion chapter puts an end to the book by reiterating that there are more women engaged in Thai Buddhism than is often assumed.
‘A well-researched book’ according to Brooke Shedneck, Seeger’s approach is historical and textual. In addition to the six female renunciants mentioned, there are many more practitioners mentioned throughout the book, each with their own unique story and path to spiritual perfection.
Mae chi are women who have taken the eight Buddhist precepts, and have renounced life as a lay person, including their possessions and their given social roles. These women renounce their lay titles as workers, mothers and wives in order to pursue intensive meditation and Buddhist education. The eight precepts that are taken by a mae chi include abstaining from causing harm to others as well as abstaining from adorning oneself in ornaments or make-up. They also include refraining from all sexual activity, intoxicants, and any form of false speech. The goal of these precepts is to maintain humility, lessen attachment to one’s body and aid in the development of meditative practice. Women pursuing the Buddhist path is heavily debated throughout Thailand, and Sulak Sivaraksa adds, an understudied topic in Thai religion and culture, making this book a much needed volume in Thai studies and Buddhist studies.
See below a brief account of each of the six main female practitioners in Gender and the Path to Awakening: Khunying Damrongthammasan (Yai Wisetsiri ), Mae Bunruean Tongbuntoem, Mae Chi Kaew Sianglaw, Mae Chi Nari Karun, Mae Chi Phimpha Wongsa-udom and Mae Chi Soda Sosut. These women, with the exception of Mae Bunruean Tongbuntoem, spent a large portion of their life as mae chi.
Khunying Yai had a privileged upbringing, and it was reported that she was of high social standing and was close to the royal family of King Rama VI. In 1922, she and her husband donated a plot of land in the south of Thailand and the monastery Wat Thammikaram was constructed upon it. She was a dedicated practitioner of meditation and some believed that, as a result of her advanced meditiation, she was able to recollect former lives of herself. She could also see the karmic consequences of other people’s actions. Some reports mention that Khunying Yai achieved one of the four stages of awakening as a consequence of her expert skill in meditation.
Khunying Yai was both humble of her achievements and a devoted practitioner. Throughout her life she published numerous texts anonymously, and many of them have been regarded as exemplary knowledge of Pali canonical scriptures and have been held in very high regard. She is also revered for her enthusiasm for the study of Buddhist texts. In 1933, she was ordained as a mae chi and remained so until her death in 1944.
Mae Bunruean was a widely respected female practitioner, as exemplified by her large following and the contribution of numerous authors to the creation of her biography after her death. The popular magazine Lokthip (Divine world) published a biography about her; making her the first female practitioner to be featured in this well-known outlet. Since a young age, Mae Bunruean was interested in the study of Buddhist doctrine and received teaching from the renowned meditation master Luang Ta Phring. She is reported to have strictly kept the Buddhist precepts. After she married she became deeply interested in meditative practice and ordained as a mae chi. She did not remain a mae chi for a long period of time, but advanced quickly in her practice: many Thai have believed that she possessed supernatural abilities, such as endowing objects with protective energies.
Indeed, Mae Bunruean was widely revered for her extraordinary skills. The most prominent of her abilities was her power of asseveration, which allowed her to relieve others of misfortune and prevent harm. This ability is key to her achievement of ‘sainthood’, and she amassed a large following throughout her life. Mae Bunruean had no apprehension of death, exemplifying the Buddhist teaching of no attachment, even to one’s own life. It has been reported that upon her death and cremation, her ashes immediately turned to relics, an extremely rare event, which, according to Thai beliefs, demonstrates the achievement of sainthood. Relics are the crystal formation of a deceased person’s ashes that confirm their status of awakened. For more on relics, see chapter 4. In the book, Seeger argues that sainthood can be found and confirmed in material objects, such as relics and amulets. Arguably, Mae Bunruean is the first female practitioner to be revered as a saint on a national scale.
From a very young age Mae Chi Kaew was able to recall past lives and could enter deep concentrative states of mind. Her ability to recollect past lives served as a platform for her Buddhist practice. She became a student of the highly revered and famous meditation master of the Thai forest tradition Luang Pu Man.Under his guidance, Mae Chi Kaew attained extraordinary progress in her meditation practice. However, when Luang Pu Man left the village, he forbade her to continue meditation without his guidance, as he feared her mind would wander without his instruction. It is perhaps here that the greater difficulty experienced by women to ordain, renounce, and take part in ascetic practices is most clear. However, although Seeger notes the patriarchal disadvantages women face, ‘their gender could have led to quicker realizations of the weariness of life and served as a source of motivation for Buddhist practice’ remarks Shedneck.
In 1945, Mae Chi Kaew built an independent nunnery in Ban Huai Sai and received instruction by one of Luang Pu Man’s main disciples, Luang Ta Mahabua. He guided her to focus less on her supernatural abilities and instead focus on spiritual practice that would be lead towards progress to nirvana. As focusing on the abilities attained through meditative practice rather the spiritual advances goes against basic Buddhist teachings of the extinction of desires. The hagiographies tell us that Mae Chi Kaew focused her practice and attained awakening, a significantly rare and respected achievement. In fact, her followers still gather in the last week of March each year to recollect Mae Chi Kaew’s spiritual achievements.
Mae Chi Nari’s first contact with Buddhism was with Luang Pu Man. Buddhism had not yet reached her village and according to her life accounts she was the only one to give him alms. Considering the lack of Buddhism in her environment, her decision to become a Buddhist renunciant by taking the eight Buddhist percepts must have been highly unusual. Her decision to pursue Buddhist practice was due to a variety of mental images she experienced, which allowed her to recollect former lifetimes.
Her teachings became famous throughout Thailand, tour buses full of followers would come to listen to her teachings. She is said to have met canonical fully awakened beings including the Buddha himself during meditation. After her death, many saw her status as an awakened one confirmed by the transformation of her remains into relics.
Mae Chi Phimpha is well-known for her monastic career and offers a more intimate look at life as a mae chi, rather than an account of supernatural occurrences. As a young woman, she declined numerous marriage prospects. When she married someone, she chose a husband who would treat her with upmost kindness. The death of her first child led her to realize the suffering of lay life. This spurred her career as a monastic. Her autobiography offers insight into the daily life of a mae chi, as well as her thoughts on Buddhist teachings, and her failures and hardships in spiritual developments. This is not common practice by many other monastics and out of all the other female practitioners mentioned throughout this book, hers is the only account that reflects these struggles.. She practiced meditation with great rigor and honesty. She was regarded as an excellent example for future mae chis and is also believed to have achieved Buddhist sainthood.
Although Mae Chi Soda came from relatively good social standing and had a family, she wished to follow the footsteps of her parents who both had renounced lay life and lived as monastics. Every holy day she closed her shop in order to practice meditation at the local temple.
Her longing to pursue life as a monastic grew stronger with the years, and in 1976 she was ordained as a mae chi by Luang Pu Juan Kulajettho at one of the most famous monasteries in Thailand.
In deep meditation, Mae Chi Soda received a mental image that directed her on an extremely difficult road to liberation from earthly desires and attachments. She took this code of practice without hesitation and lived her life accordingly. As her meditation progressed, it is said that she was able to radiate loving kindness to others through her practice and was also able to relieve the pain of others. Upon her death, it is said that her ashes turned into relics, showing Mae Chi Soda’s dedication to the strict path she had followed. Thousands traveled to attend her funeral and celebrate her purity and dedication to practice.
Overall, ‘Martin Seeger finds that the women’s commitment to meditation, supernatural abilities, and teachings has been recognized in certain contexts, with material culture such as stupas and amulets signifying theirrealizations of Buddhist truths’, Brooke Shedneck argues. ‘Gender and the Path to Awakening’ is an excellent choice for classes related to gender in Southeast Asia, and ‘pushes the field of gender and Buddhism into more creative, nuanced, and complex directions’, she adds. Sulak Sivaraksa writes: ‘I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in how women have influence the development of Thai Buddhism to read this book’. You can read the Table of Contents and the Introduction of Gender and the Path to Awakening online. We would love to hear what you thought about the book!
¹Sulak Sivaraksa (2019) ‘Gender and the Path to Awakening: Hidden Stories of Nuns in Modern Thai Buddhism’, Seeds of Peace 35 (3).
²Brooke Schedneck (2019). Gender in Buddhist Southeast Asian History and Anthropology – The Traffic in Hierarchy: Masculinity and Its Others in Buddhist Burma. By Ward Keeler. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017. xvi, 333 pp. ISBN: 9780824865948 (cloth). – Gender and the Path to Awakening: Hidden Histories of Nuns in Modern Thai Buddhism. By Martin Seeger. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2018. xvii, 341
Martin Seeger is Professor of Thai Studies at the University of Leeds. From 1997 to 2000 he was ordained as a monk in northern Thailand. He earned his PhD in Thai Studies from Hamburg University, and his research has focused on Thai Theravada Buddhism and its role in Thai society. He often combines ethnographic with textual studies. He is the author of ‘Gender and the Path to Awakening’.
Originally from Vancouver Island, Emma Kiedyk is entering the final year of her Bachelor of Arts degree at McGill University, focusing on Psychology and World Religions, with a special interest in Buddhist Studies. She hopes to pursue Graduate Studies in Health Psychology and work in adolescent mental health. In her spare time Emma enjoys gardening, sketching and fermenting food.
Gender and the Path to Awakening
Hidden Histories of Nuns in Modern Thai Buddhism
by Martin Seeger
360 pp., 27. illus.
NIAS Monographs # 144
Available from NIAS Press in Europe only
Paperback – 2018, Available
ISBN 978 87 7694 258 8, £25.00