An Engaged Buddhist Woman’s Extraordinary Life

The full moon is waning now; silvery light splashes into my little room on retreat on Whidbey Island. Like the movement of ocean tides, women’s bodies are attuned to the rhythm of the moon cycle. Years ago in Massachusetts, I created “Women in Buddhism” retreats to share my research and reverence for centuries of great female practitioners from South and East Asia; we learned about their stories and our own. I appreciated Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilisingh’s work, the feminist Thai Buddhist scholar we know today as Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the only abbess of a Buddhist monastery with fully ordained Theravada nuns. 

Did you know Dhammananda had a huge life as a laywoman prior to her pioneering ordination in her mid-fifties? Dr. Kabilisingh was a high-profile academic, a professor of Buddhist Studies for twenty-seven years who had her own popular TV show. She explored the realm of being a wife and mother, married for thirty years, lovingly raising three grown sons. How unusual it is for a nun to have had such rich feminine experience and worldly success! Ven. Dhammananda can easily and fearlessly relate to people in many different situations.

In 2019, the BBC named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world because of her tireless work to re-establish the Theravada female monastic lineage in Asia and initiate positive changes for women in Thai society. She faced intense opposition and discrimination, “How did I surmount these problems? Through understanding and compassion. Those who suppress women (or anyone) do so out of ignorance. I am fighting ignorance, not people…Spiritual maturity is very helpful to strengthen you and see you through difficult times. When you have blossomed from pain to peacefulness on your spiritual path, you can really help nourish others you meet. To ease the pain of the world, you need to be nurturing and mothering.”

In the eternal cycle of life, the moon waxes and wanes. The full moon is an ancient symbol of the radiant, awakened nature of consciousness. The waning moon disappears into the mysterious dark. When I reflect on all the phases of Dhammananda’s life, I think of the moon and the stages of my own life. Can you appreciate all the lunar phases in yours – birth, growth, fullness, letting go, vanishing, beginning anew?


Please join us this Thursday night for conversation with Venerable Dhammananda. Her devoted student, author Cindy Rasicot, and I will be co-hosting – please bring your questions!  

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