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A slow walking meditation by the mae chii of Phuket. Phuket has many surprisingly sublime aspects to its culture.

Among the Women in White

Sunday, November 18, 2007
LOCKED IN with the women in white at the Buddhist sanctuary at the foot of Khao Rang in Phuket City, I am privileged to see an event very few men, if any, have seen.

At 7pm each evening, the women go to an upstairs room to pray. They form lines on both sides of the room and perform a walking meditation, moving barefoot and stepping from one side to the other in darkness, with only the shrine well-lit.

As the women move, slowly and almost efortlessly, I kneel taking time-exposure photographs, marvelling at the sublime nature of the scene.

The women criss-cross and merge through their two lines, seemingly paying little attention to what is around them, almost gliding in their long white robes.

Later, with the main gate unlocked, I leave. It is certainly a thought-provoking and uplifting evening, a couple of hours I will never forget.

Within their cloistered existence, these women have in abundance three elements that the rest of the world needs: serenity, spirituality and substance.

While many Thai men become monks, often just for a short period, the women in white are a much less frequent sight. The robed women of Khao Rang are the only group on Phuket, and they are rare throughout the rest of Thailand, too.

The women are known as mae chiis. Those who decide to stay in a Buddhist order forego all the material and sensual aspects of life that the rest of us take for granted.

Social anthropologist Monica Lindberg Falk has been studying communities of the women for several years and is author of a new book.

"Many of the mae chiis who had been ordained at a young age stated that they had previously longed to live a spiritual life," she said from Sweden.

"Several of them declared that they had wanted to become ordained as soon as they realised that it was possible for women to live a religious life."

At the foot of Khao Rang, off Mae Luan Road, up to 60 women live a tranquil existence where their main objective is devotional meditation. The home of the mae chiis is ideal for reflection and contemplation.

A high wall surrounds the perimeter of a sanctuary that is called a samnak chii. On the inside, it is more than just a case of not having access to a mobile phone. There is no telephone of any kind, nor is there an internet connection or even a computer.

Theirs is solely a spiritual connection. Prayers begin for the women in white soon after they are roused by the soft and musical refrain of a zither at 3.30am.

The daily ritual continues with meditation and prayers at set times. First, after awakening in darkness, they pray. Then at sunrise, before 6am, the women set out to walk the nearby streets on an alms round, sharing the roads and the merit donations, mostly of food, with monks in saffron.

Breakfast is followed by more prayers. Then the chores of cleaning and maintaining the samnak chii are carried out.

Lunch comes early, about 11am. The women are obliged to fast from noon each day until their breakfast meal early the next day.

Afterwards, the mae chii study and discuss Buddhist scriptures, looking for answers to questions about life and spirit.

While strict Buddhists generally follow five precepts: no killing, no lying, no stealing, no adultery and no alcohol. The mae chii have three additional strictures.

Entertainment is ruled out, and there is not even a television set in the samnak chii. The women are also obliged to sleep on mats rather than comfortable beds. Precept number eight bars the wearing of perfume or makeup.

"The ordained life as a mae chii is arduous," Ms Lindberg Falk said. "And it would be very difficult to put up with the demanding life if mae chiis were not highly motivated.

"The idea that lay life entails difficulties, suffering and negative bonds to life through marriage and child-rearing is a major theme in mae chiis' stories about their reasons for ordaining," she said.

"This theme seems to cut across socio-economic circumstances. The lay life is commonly depicted by the mae chiis as boring."

Meditation is central to their calling. Women can join for a short time, a few days or a month, to absorb the peace and tranquility and renew the balance in their lives, especially if they have suffered a crisis.

Those who are staying only for a short time are not obliged to shave their heads, although some do.

A young woman who has suffered a rift with a boyfriend, for example, might become a mae chii to gain renewed understanding about life. Then she will return to the outside world.

Others are ordained in middle age, after having children. What do the women, young and not so young, hope to gain as mae chiis?

"Lay life did not attract these women and they (the young ones) usually express an absolute lack of interest in getting married," says Ms Lindberg Falk.

"Before their ordinations, these young women had often developed a deep faith in Buddhism through listening to Buddhist radio programs, reading Buddhist books and listening to monks at the temples."

Phuket has a reputation for encouraging strong women leaders in every field, with the fighting heroine sisters the prime historical example of sisters in action.

On a different plane, a spiritual mother and daughter have also achieved much for women on Phuket. Their story deserves to be told more often.

The Kao Rang samnak chii was founded in 1924. At that time, the abbot of an island temple died and mae chii Sub, with her daughter mae chii Thet, emerged as highly respected leaders and were accepted by the monks of Phuket.

Today their photographs, along with black and white enlargements of other early leaders, still occupy pride of place at the samnak chii. Modern mae chii are sometimes keen to be photographed with them.

The leader now is mae chii Prakob, a gentle and tolerant woman who sets a fine example.

Unlike other sanctuaries, the Phuket samnak chii is independent and not under the auspices or influence of a temple of monks.

In 2007, as a sign of the esteem in which the Kao Rang mae chii are held, a relic of Buddha was placed with great ceremony at the top of the chedi in the forecourt. The chedi is visible from the main gates of the sanctuary.

On days of special religious significance, the women walk around the chedi, holding incense and lotus flowers, and pray.

At other times, families and friends can visit. Chickens, cats and dogs roam the gardens. The women grow many of their own vegetables, and the whole place has an air of tranquility. Peace is their main produce.

Women from the outside world who are seriously interested in Buddhist meditation can join the mae chii for their daily prayer sessions, but they will need to be able to speak Thai or take along a Thai interpreter.

Monica Lindberg Falk is a research fellow at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University in Sweden. Her work focuses on gender, religion, and social change in Thailand."Making Fields of Merit: Buddhist Female Ascetics and Gendered Orders in Thailand," is published in Thailand by Silkworm Books.


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