The Virtuous Life of a Thai Buddhist Nun

PhD Candidate K Petcharat Lovichakorntikul and I submitted an abstract for a new book project concerning Women and Asian Religion, which has now been accepted. The short and extended abstract are as follows:

Abstract

The life of Khun Yai Chandra Konnokyoong (1910-2002) mirrors changes in the lives of Buddhist women in Thailand as the country entered the modern age. Born into a poor agricultural family, she rejected familial claims to become a maid in Bangkok and subsequently started a temple and religious centre that has become an extremely successful organization which is aimed at uniting the sentiments and ideas of the past with the present. Her career combines traditional values with the modern means of bringing them about, thereby indicating the role that technology has had in freeing women from domestic labour and enabling them to follow other pursuits.

Extended Abstract

Thai society continues to view women as the ‘rear legs of the elephant,’ who should follow and support their husbands who are the front legs. Yet this traditional lifestyle has been challenged by the spread of capitalism through globalization and has been transformed, particularly in urban areas. The expectations and aspirations of women have been significantly altered and their ability and willingness to work outside the house, which have had clear impacts upon their duties within families and households. This changing role for women is matched by the increased importance, particularly in Bangkok, of the figure of Guan Im (Guan Yin), originally a Chinese goddess now imported as a symbol of middle class hopes and fears. Thai Buddhist society does not recognize Bhikkuni or female monk status but does accept women becoming nuns and following the eight precepts. One woman who followed this route and founded the Phra Dhammakaya Temple, lived a long and virtuous life which in many ways parallels the changes in women’s status during this period and approximates the role of Guan Im for her followers. Khun Yai Chandra Konnokyoong (1910-2002) was born into a farming family and received no formal education. As her family prospered, she left and rejected her familial duties to become a maid in a rich household in Bangkok and, ultimately, the freedom to devote her life to being a nun. She devoted herself to meditation as a means of making merit for her father and family, despite not being present in the household so that, in 1970, with just $100, she was able to establish her own temple. Within twenty years, her followers were spreading her teaching around the world and now there are some 200 temples or branches of the original Phra Dhammakaya Temple nationwide and 60 meditation centres around the world. She has instructed thousands of people both Thai and foreign in her methods. She focuses on spiritual development and the purification of the mind and body: more than 50,000 teenagers have joined programmes to avoid drugs and alcohol and volunteer for public service because of her influence. Some 2,000 monks and 1,000 Ubasokas and Ubasikas devote their lives to Buddhism at her temple. On Buddhist holidays, as many as 50-100,000 people come together to meditate in silence. In common with the inspiration of Guan Im, she provides a community of peace and obedience (without questioning), with new generations ready to build lives in the new world with the methods and traditions of the old.

Keywords: Buddhist Nun, Dhammakaya, Self-development, Thailand

 

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