Mae ji or Mae chee (Thai: แม่ชี, rtgs: maechi, IPA: [mɛ̂ː tɕʰiː]) are Buddhist laywomen in Thailand occupying a position somewhere between that of an ordinary lay follower and an ordained monastic and similar to that of the sāmaṇerī. Faith Adiele, a Western scholar and former Thai sāmaṇerī, notes, "Since 1971 the Queen's Foundation for Thai Maechi has addressed maechi affairs through the Thai Institute."
It is still illegal for women to take ordination in Thailand because of a 1928 law created by the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. He based this on the fact that Gautama Buddha allowed senior female monastics (the bhikkhuni sangha) to initiate new women into the order. But, citing the belief that the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha died out centuries earlier, the patriarch commanded that any Thai monk who ordained a female "is said to conduct what the Buddha has not prescribed, to revoke what the Buddha has laid down, and to be an enemy of the holy Religion...". The most recent case brought to the Supreme Court of Thailand is that of Phothirak, a former monk who has been ejected from the Thai sangha after being convicted of breaching the vinaya repeatedly. Phothirak then created his own sect of Buddhism, Santi Asoke, and ordained about 80 bhikkhunis in 1998, leading to his imprisonment for 66 months on several successive counts of "causing schism amongst the religion".
Mae jis have traditionally been and still are marginalized figures in Thai society. During the 20th century, new movements to improve the lot of mae jis emerged. But the situation is still far from being acceptable under modern standards of human rights, with other Thai women often the most vocally opposed to women wearing robes. The Thai Bhikkhuni Sangha has been revived by Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, who took ordination as a bhikkhuni has not been imprisoned. But opposition from high-ranking Thai monks seems to have discouraged mae jis from joining her.
Because of the belief that the Bhikkhuni Sangha was never established in Thailand, women have traditionally been denied the chance to become ordained members of the sangha. Instead, for several centuries Thai women have chosen to live as mae jis, taking the eight precepts and living either in monasteries or in dedicated communities of female renunciants. Temporary mae jis (who typically do not shave their heads) are called ji brahmin (ชีพราหมณ์ rtgs: chi phram).
Like monks, mae jis shave their heads and undertake precepts not generally observed by lay followers. Mae jis most commonly receive these precepts from a monk, but there is little in the way of a formal ordination ceremony for most Mae jis. Mae jis wear white robes in their daily lives, distinguishing them from both monks and other lay people. Mae ji are not recognized as monastics by the Thai government, and are not eligible for monastic benefits. Yet, they are denied the rights of other lay citizens. While the male Sangha has traditionally received considerable oversight and assistance from various government ministries, only in the 20th Century did the Thai Sangha begin to take an organized role in providing for the needs of mae jis. An institute now attempts to roughly track the number of mae jis in the country, and provides funds that can be used for educational opportunities for mae jis. The amount per person spent by the government, on supporting mae jis, is significantly less than the amount spent on monks. Likewise, mae jis do not receive certain perks (such as free passage on public transportation) that are offered to monks. Yet, mae jis - like monks - are forbidden from voting or standing for civil elections in Thailand.
In addition, mae jis have traditionally not enjoyed the same level of support given to monks by the Thai laity. Because the mae jis have no special position described in the Tipiṭaka, they are seen as laywomen and gifts given to mae jis are not seen as bringing merit to the donor in the manner of gifts given to a monk. Most Thais are unfamiliar with the history of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha and believe that Gautama Buddha never ordained women. Others believe that women have become mae jis because they can't find a husband or to escape personal and family problems.
Most mae jis live on the premise of a temple. The temple may provide daily meals and lodging. But in general, mae jis are expected to provide for themselves, through support from relatives, and the temples do not care for them as they do their monks. Most mae jis essentially act as servants or staff for the temple, cooking and cleaning for the monks and overseeing the sale of incense and other offerings to visitors to the temple.
Smaller numbers of Mae jis live in their own communities, which may or may not be associated with a local monastery. Women in these communities often experience better conditions those living in traditional monasteries. The separation of the male and female renunciants helps discourage the Mae jis being used as servants by monks and temple staff.
The exact derivation of the term mae ji is not known. Several possible etymologies have been suggested, relating mae ji either to Sanskrit or Sinhala terms for renunciants, morality, or other positive qualities. The word ji is occasionally used in the Thai language to refer either to Buddhist monks, or to ordained followers of other traditions, such as Hindu priests or Jain monks.
Historically, little is known about the status and lives of mae jis prior to Western contact with the kingdoms that preceded the modern state of Thailand. European observers in the 17th century reported seeing white-robed, shaven-headed women who lived on the grounds of Buddhist temples. Most of these women were reported to be advanced in years, possibly indicating that life as a Mae ji may have served as a sort of retirement plan for older women who did not have families to provide for them. Records from prior to this time do not explicitly mention mae jis in Thailand; it is likely that some records were lost in the destruction of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 18th Century. The marginalization of the mae jis in Thai society may also play a role in their exclusion from the historical record.
In 1969, the first nation-wide meeting of mae jis was organized by the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. During the same year, the Queen's Foundation for Thai Maechi was formed to organize mae jis scattered throughout Thailand.
A private organization affiliated with the official church hierarchy, the Institute receives no government funding and is dedicated to the stability and progress of maechi, increasing faith in maechi among the people and training maechi to help lay society.
The institute seeks to improve conditions for mae jis by providing better access to education, and screening and placing potential mae jis and seeks to ensure that all mae jis possess basic knowledge of Buddhist teachings and proper monastic behavior. The Institute has also attempted to discourage mae ji from begging for alms, as monks do. Instead, older mae jis (who are particularly at risk for poverty) are increasingly placed in old-age homes.
Other female Buddhist orders in Thailand
Despite the absence of a full bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand, a number of other groups of female renunciants emerged in Thai society during the 20th Century. The buddhasavikas are a very small organization of women who have received ordination from the Taiwanese lineage. The sikhamats were female renunciants ordained by the Santi Asoke movement. They lived a communal life, kept a strict vegetarian diet, and attempted to be self-supporting through organic farming and daily manual labor.
- dasa sil mata, literally "10 precept mother": female lay renunciants in Sri Lanka.
- Thilashin - Literally 'possessor of moral integrity'. Female lay renunciants in Burma. A branch of this lineage was also brought to Nepal in the 1930s.
- Siladharas - Order of Theravadin Buddhist nuns at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, UK. They follow the basic 10 precepts plus a selection of rules from the bhikkhuni pātimokkha.
- Temple boy
- Queen, Christopher S; King, Sallie B., eds. (1996). Engaged Buddhism : Buddhist liberation movements in Asia. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press. p. 267. ISBN 978-0791428436.
- Karma Lekshe Tsomo (2008). Buddhist Women in a Global Multicultural Community. Malaysia: Sukhi Hotu Dhamma Publications. p. 227.
- Adiele, Faith (2005). Meeting Faith : the forest journals of a black Buddhist nun. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0393326734.
- "ประกาศห้ามพระเณรไม่ให้บวชหญิงเป็นบรรพชิต ลงวันที่ ๑๘ มิถุนายน ๒๔๗๑." (ม.ป.ป.). [ออนไลน์]. เข้าถึงได้จาก: <ลิงก์>. (เข้าถึงเมื่อ: ๒๓ พฤศจิกายน ๒๕๕๔).
- See The Announcement Prohibiting Monks and Novices from Ordaining Females, dated June 18, 1928 on Thai Wikisource.
- Public Prosecutor v. Loetkhuphinit et al.
- "Forest Sangha Newsletter". Retrieved October 2007.
- Bhikkhuni Dhammananda
- Thai Bhikkhunis - Songdhammakalyani monastery
- The Structural Violence Against Women. Nakhonpathom 2005.
- See dictionary definitions at http://www.thai2english.com/dictionary/11331.html.
- noted in the cover article of Vipassana Banteurng Sarn Vol.2 Issue 4. April 1969