When most people think of Buddhist nuns, Chhin Samboun – a wrinkled 81-year-old man wearing Tom Cruise sunglasses and a permanent grin – is probably not what comes to mind. In white trousers and the traditional matching robe as a scarf around his neck, on a recent afternoon he enjoyed a post-lunch siesta in a hammock strung between the wooden beams of the hut where he lives in the Wat Put Mondal temple complex, Oudong.
Samboun refers to himself as a “nun”, but some dispute the term, claiming it to be a mistranslation when explaining the term to a Western audience. The word certainly doesn’t relate to the Christian idea of a nun, which is largely viewed as the female equivalent of a monk. In Theravada Buddhism, the primary duty of monks is to study and practice morality, meditation and wisdom so as to attain nirvana. They will also preside over communities as spiritual teachers and leaders, and provide instruction in some basic Buddhist teachings.
Nuns, meanwhile, are not ordained, and therefore have lower status than monks. They live in the pagoda, wear white robes and shave their heads.
Samboun is what Cambodians call a ta tei, essentially a male Buddhist ascetic who lives in the pagoda. The female equivalent is either daun chee, for women who follow the ten precepts of Buddhism, or yay chee, for women who follow eight.
“I became a nun ten years ago, because I wanted to respect Buddhist rules and to teach Vipassana meditation,” Samboun says. “I didn’t have a particular passion to be a monk, and besides, monks have more rules they have to follow.”
Samboun, who spends most of his time teaching meditation to other nuns, is one of nearly 100 male nuns or ta tei who live and worship at Wat Put Mondal. They join the women to pray, but live in huts on a separate side of the compound. As is the case for monks, they are strictly forbidden to touch the women.
In most pagodas across Cambodia, traditional gender roles are still in place. But while the Buddhist temple may not be a hotbed of revolution, an increasing number of influential female voices are furthering change within its gender politics.
Tan Sovannah, 58, who worships at Wat Put Mondal, became a daun chee six years ago in order to seek refuge from the trauma she has suffered since losing most of her family during the Khmer Rouge genocide. For Sovannah, meditation is a psychological medicine. She said that had she not become a nun – this is what she, too, defines herself as – she may have committed suicide.
She said: “I saw my children, father and mother die during the Pol Pot regime, and afterwards I lived alone. I had no home. I came to this pagoda and admired the Buddhist rules, so I decided to become a nun.”
As well as performing religious duties, Sovannah and the other nuns at Wat Put Mondal are expected to wait on the monks, washing dishes, chopping vegetables and cooking for them. Sovannah in particular is also responsible for approaching the villagers to ask for help when the monks run out of food.
This is a tradition that goes back centuries. However, over the past two decades, figures have begun to emerge who are challenging these gender roles. In Cambodia, Chan Sobunvy from Oudong, project director at the Association of Nuns and Laywomen of Cambodia (ANLWC), is at the forefront of this campaign. Until recently, the association, which was founded in 1995, was funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, though it now survives through funding from the Queen Mother Norodom Monireth Sihanouk. The initial aim of the association was to encourage nuns to put their respected religious status to good use in the community, through advising and counselling women who had problems, spanning from domestic violence to drug or alcohol abuse. The association works with 100 communities in 15 provinces around Cambodia.
As part of the initiative, the Heinrich Böll Foundation trained nuns and laywomen in counselling, which they would then put into practice when they advised other women. For Sobunvy, it represents an elevation of the status and rights of women, both within and outside the pagoda. She said: “Our mission was to reconstruct this country and bring peace. Our goal was to give opportunities to the nuns to study with the monks. Buddha said that women and men have equal rights.”
Lok Yeax Horn, 71, is a nun based at Wat Mongkalvan in Phnom Penh. She became a nun more than 20 years ago, and joined the ANLWC 10 years ago, going to rural areas in Kandal province to counsel women suffering from HIV and AIDS as well as victims of domestic violence. She has also taught women Vipassana meditation in order to escape trauma, including that brought on by memories of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Horn said: “The Heinrich Böll Foundation trained me about how to avoid discrimination among people with HIV or AIDS, and I also gained counselling skills from the ANLWC. I shared this experience with disadvantaged women.”
She continued: “Because I am a woman, other women look up to me. Before I became a nun I had problems with alcohol, so I can pass down my advice to others.”
ANLWC isn’t the only organisation to give nuns mentoring roles. The Nuns and Wat Grannies programme (NWG) was established by the Reproductive and Child Health Alliance (RACHA) in 2000 with the help of US AID, with the aim to empower nuns with the means to advise women on health issues including breastfeeding and pregnancy. Chan Ketsana, child health team leader at RACHA, said: “The initial initiative and purpose of RACHA to work with NWG is to use the religious channel to promote and improve correct breastfeeding practices and later on to integrate other key child health messages. The nuns are influential because they are elderly and respected by people in the community.”
According to Kristin Mundt, an academic expert in the history of Southeast Asia from Leipzig University in Germany who spent three months working with ANLWC, the association can be viewed as part of a wider modernising Buddhist movement seen across Asia during the 20th century. It has strong links with independence movements in the region, as well as ideas around socialist reform and western influence on gender norms. “[The ANLWC] can be understood as a development that happened within ideas and structures of colonial and revolutionary modernity,” she said, referring to the colonial history the country shares with other parts of Asia.
A similar movement is the gender programme at the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in Thailand, spearheaded by Ouyporn Khuankaew. When the organisation was launched 20 years ago, Ouyporn was interested in its ideals of social justice, but recognised a need for more women to have a voice. She said: “There might have been 10 nuns present at a meeting but we didn’t hear their voices. I immediately started a project inviting Buddhist nuns in particular.”
Ouyporn organised public speaking training, counselling and social work for the nuns, focusing particularly on gender-based violence. She said: “The role of nuns in the temple is not so different than at home: they serve the monks, cook and clean; they take on the same service role. In order to shift this role, we provided them with counselling skills and taught them about social justice.”
In Southeast Asia, advising women who face gender-based violence is complicated. Many Buddhist women, Ouyporn said, are taught by monks that victims of domestic violence are paying for previous sins. She said: “It’s taught wrongly by monks.
Women internalise a misrepresentation of karma. We explain to them about patriarchy so they can make choices. It comes from feminist empowerment. I hear women say, “it must be my karma from my previous life”; they say the monks say so, and I say, “do you know the Buddha doesn’t say that?””
Ouyporn still works at the INEB from time to time, but is now based in Chiang Mai where she has founded the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP). With IWP, she has extended feminist teachings to monks, with whom she now holds classes. Ouyporn said: “The monk has power - if you don’t train them, they will keep repeating the same teachings.”
The idea that bad karma influences suffering, particularly from domestic abuse, is also prevalent in Cambodia. Nap Somaly, Senior Women’s Rights Monitor at the human rights NGO Licadho, said: “Women often believe that they suffer because of having sinned in a past life. We advise women that this isn’t the case, that they are victims in the situation.”
The complexities don’t stop there. Among Buddhism’s outspoken female voices, some disagree on the ways in which to elevate the status of nuns and the ANLWC’s approach has faced criticism. Elizabeth Guthrie, an academic in Buddhism and Southeast Asian religion and author of the book History, Buddhism and New Religious Movements in Cambodia, wrote: “encouraging daun jee to get involved in secular society will only hinder their meditation and dhamma studies while further diminishing their status as religious ascetics in Cambodia.”
For the moment, in Cambodia, attention has shifted towards the pagoda – if not by choice. As the Heinrich Boll Foundation no longer funds ANLWC, the organisation now focuses on education within the temple. Horn, who used to visit women in the provinces once every three months for a month at a time, now goes just once a year. Sobunvy has some income-generating ideas in the pipeline, particularly involving the association’s centre at Kep: “It’s the perfect location to transform into a retreat – people could come and give us a contribution.”
Similarly, US AID funding for the Nuns and Wat Grannies initiative has now run out, though Ketsana insisted that they had taught the women to pass on what they had learned to younger members of their family.
Others have higher aspirations in their sights.
Unlike nuns, only men can be ordained as monks in the Theravada Buddhism practiced in Cambodia, but it hasn’t always been this way. According to Mundt, the Buddha fully ordained his aunt like a monk, becoming what is known as a bhikkuni. She said: “The Buddha granted the first female ordination for his aunt and adoptive mother Mahaprajapati, after she and her hundred followers boldly shaved their heads, donned the golden robes of the monks, and demanded equal ordination rights.”
Dr Ian Harris, visiting professor of Buddhist Studies at King’s College, London, said: “The bhikkuni must observe 311 rules and put herself under the authority of the monks’ order.”
This tradition isn’t completely dead in Theravada Buddhism: a group in Thailand is embracing the ordination of female monks. Thai Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, herself ordained in Sri Lanka, changed her name to the Venerable Dhammananda and started ordaining women back in her homeland.
While the Thai Sangha, the country’s religious authority, refuses to recognise the ordination of women, Dhammananda runs the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, Thailand’s first all-female temple, in Nakhon Pathom near Bangkok. Today there are an estimated 150 bhikkunis who practice in ten temples across Thailand.
Could something similar happen here? Would Cambodians look on women differently if they were allowed to be ordained like men? Sobunvy thinks so, but it won’t come any time soon. She said: “I think that for equality, this would help. At the moment, progress for nuns is very, very slow.”