6am; the sun rose less than half an hour ago when, from a gate located in a small quiet street just off the main road, three shaved head figures, covered in saffron robes, looking peaceful, carrying a round metal bowl in their arms, come out in a single line walking towards the small village nearby.
It is a scene of everyday life here in Thailand, where every morning Buddhist monks venture out of their temples to go receive the food that people offer them, an act aimed at giving them sustenance as well as at acquiring merits to stock for the next life. Nothing particularly original then in an image repeated for centuries, day after day, in every country that embraces the Buddhist tradition.
Nothing original except that the three figures that left the Songdhammakalyani Temple, located a short drive from the city of Nakhon Pathom about sixty kilometers west of Bangkok, are actually Bhikkhuni (fully ordained Buddhist nuns – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhikkhuni). An extremely disciplined black dog walks in front of the nuns almost as if wanting to protect them, while behind walks a Brazilian nun from a different order in temporary visit to the temple, and a young Indian novice nun dressed in a white tunic and with long black hair tight to a tail who is booked to be ordained in a matter of days. She pushes a cart destined to collect the bulk of the offers.
The small procession proceeds silent, almost in meditation; the first rays of the sun gently pose on their orange tunics, illuminating them as if to give them a halo of spirituality; all around the nothingness. Empty streets where a scooter or a car occasionally pass and disturbs, with their noise, this early morning poetic scene. Then, in the near distance, suddenly a bit of entertainment: in front of a local shop, a couple of people are waiting. The Bhikkhunis approach the group, place themselves in front of the villagers who in the mean time have opened their containers, and wait that they fill their bowls with fresh food. More offerings are given to the monks, and the novice stores it neatly in the cart. The people kneel down hands-folded waiting for a blessing that soon comes in the form of singing, then the little procession continues their walk.
The scene is repeated several times, the containers increase their content, the cart is filled up; people kneel and the singing quietly raises towards the sky. For each offering, a smile lights up the Bhikkhunis’ faces, followed by a word of comfort to a man on his knees in spite of his handicap, encouragement and best wishes to a Chinese elderly with a wealthy appearance who donated a lot more than other people. In a few small word, is the local presence of these women who have sacrificed their femininity and their life to devote themselves to people and meditation.
The Venerable Dhammananda, founder of the temple’s daughter and present abbess, has a solar face and a friendly smile, and possesses the dedication of those who are accustomed to donate their time to others. In a short interview she tells us that the local population is very supportive towards the nuns, who have represented a very active presence in the area for more than one whole generation. They consider the temple as a reference point where to find comfort exactly in the same way as it happens for the males oriented temples.
We had already received confirmation of her words when the group had just returned from their morning alms and they were getting ready for their first of the two meals of the day (nuns, just like their male counterparts, can only eat two meals a day, and after midday only can take in liquids, though a light evening meal is allowed only for health reasons). At that time, the first devotees started arriving to the temple with more food, helped them to prepare meals, and only after having served lunch to the Bhikkhunis arranged in a row on one side of the refectory, sat down on the opposite side, chanted a prayer and ate their own food, washing all the dishes afterwards.
Meanwhile, other people continued to arrive and donated more food, this time for the midday meal, and attended a ceremony in memory of two women who had previously died.
There was an atmosphere of celebration and harmony which did manage to involve those who, like us, was just visiting, all in a frame that conveyed a sense of peace and spirituality. This in spite of the noise of the traffic that reached us, gradually louder and louder, from the main street adjacent to one side of the temple, as well as from the renovation works from the inside of the structure. This noise became mere background in that intense atmosphere that pervaded the intense activities of the temple.
The Songdhammakalyani temple this year celebrates 54 years of age if we calculate the birthdate from the date of purchase of the land that hosts it. It was founded by the venerable Voramai Kabilsingh, mother of the current abbess, a very interesting character considering that she was born in 1908. A writer, a poet, a teacher, married to a Thai member of parliament at the time of World War II, she lived for a short time in southern Thailand before moving back to Bangkok after the birth of her daughter. She started to get passionate about meditation, she then engaged in studies on Buddhism until, in 1955, she edited a Buddhist monthly journal that she would manage for 32 years. In 1956 she took the minor orders and 15 years later, in 1971, was ordained a Bhikkhuni, or nun, in Taiwan, when Thailand did not yet recognized the ordination of a woman. It was in 1960 that she purchased the land on which the temple would be later built. Nakhon Pathom was chosen as the location not by chance: this city is considered the gateway to the Theravada Buddhism in Thailand; Voramai wanted to give continuity to the tradition of the cradle of Buddhism in this province with the building of the first temple of the feminine realm.
Her life also has some picturesque implications that complete the portrait of a person that I can only describe as extremely fascinating: in 1972, at the tender age of 64, she was the only female scout to travel by bicycle to Singapore in a trip that took 29 days, setting an unsurpassed record. What we do not find in the biographies we can only imagine: a life of dedication to what she believed in, spent drawing inspiration from the Buddha teachings, devoted to meditation, to others, and to the building of that project so utopian in other monotheistic religions, one that led the women to a monastic level equal to that of men.
The venerable Voramai Kabilsingh, known before as Bhiksuni in the Kingdom of Thailand, died in June 2003 at the age of 95; her binding legacy was picked up by her daughter, whom we had the pleasure and honour to meet during a morning spent to deepen our knowledge on a reality still little known, between visits and ceremonies. She now has the difficult task of educating a group of quality Bhikkhuni nuns, as she calls them.