Aug 22, 2009


As the Catholic community absorbs the impact of the 'Roman Catholic Women Priests' movement and debates the pros and cons, I offer this lovely video from Thailand of the "Floating Nun' of Kanchanaburi. A simple, spiritual woman in her 60's when this film was made, she floats in salt water and meditates in poses of the Buddha. It is very much pure theatre and meant to be an inspiring sight. (Try to ignore the cynical comments on You Tube, the Monastery has always been very upfront about the use of salt water to achieve the effect.) Unfortunately, when she passed on, the monastery - not wanting to give up on a good thing - hired another woman to take her place who is clearly not a nun and possesses none of the grace of the former woman (not to be uncharitable). As a result, the gentle spiritual effect has been lost.

Thai Buddhism mirrors in many ways the plight of the Roman Catholic tradition. It is by far the most misogynistic and intolerant branch of Buddhism in its attitude to its nuns (and women in general), who are very much second class citizens, relegated in some cases to washing the monks' clothes and cleaning the toilets (a bit of an exaggeration, not much). While attitudes are slowly changing, there is still not much respect in Thailand for the white robed "maechee," as they are called, and until recently no access to education, which was reserved for male monks only. Theravada Buddhism is among the last branches of Buddhism to refuse to ordain women monks. It's centralized Sangha in Bangkok is rigid and tradition-bound and deeply suspicious of any autonomous spiritual movements in the provinces that cannot be controlled. It attempts to punish and silence outspoken monks and imposes severe sanctions. And yes, sadly, it has been rocked in recent years by the scandal of sexual abuse, both of temple boys and of nuns and women aspirants. And yet, despite this, Buddhism continues to inspire the best in Thai culture and the number of genuine, enlightened masters who have flourished in the forest wats of the country is truly inspiring. Likewise, the number of outstanding nuns who uphold the tradition and are recognized meditation masters and social activists. Not all are cleaning toilets. The paradox of religion and spirituality in a hyde-bound tradition.

Website of Roman Catholic Women Priests


Edward said...

As a gay Catholic living in Bangkok, appreciate the link you make between the misogynies of Roman Catholicism and Thai Buddhism. In both, enlightened women who cast off the bonds meant to confine them will have a lot to do with freeing up the enslaved institutions.