Photographing Nuns Making History in Thailand

Venerable Dhammananda

Brave or rude?  I learned from an Italian to get up close and uncomfortable for a really good photo of a monk or nun.  Massimo Bassano’s stunning shots for National Geographic are a testament to his fearless approach.

In Italy I also learned to not hesitate crossing a busy street.  Boldness counts in photography as well.  She who waits gets stuck in traffic or misses the perfect light before the Bhikkhuni (nun) lowers her gaze.

An hour west of Bangkok, at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, I captured shots of the sisters raking leaves, felling dead trees and sitting quietly in meditation.  While some of the younger ones acted camera shy, the older nuns were content to ignore my intrusions.

Even with permission to shoot the stillness of contemplative practice or chanting I needed to be more sensitive to their needs for concentration.  A few clicks of the shutter may have been fine.  My zealous barrage was too much.

As the youngest daughter in my family the sweet smile and fade into the woodwork was my strategic coping style.  As a photographer and woman of words it is a bane.

One of the principle reasons I’ve sought out Venerable Dhammananda and her order of nuns is their big, bold assertion living as Bhikkhunis in a country where it’s considered illegal to be ordained as a woman in the Buddhist Theravada tradition.

Despite the extreme misogyny of the times, the Buddha accepted women into the religious community of devoted practitioners over 2500 years ago.  Today the Theravada order in Thailand excludes women as ordained nuns on questionable technicalities.  Buddha’s understanding and nurturance of women’s equal spiritual capacity became lost in centuries of entrenched male autocratic rule.

Venerable Dhammananda is secure in her understanding of the Buddhist faith and women’s necessary leadership role in practicing and teaching the truth of the path.  Her confidence is followed by a rain of blessings to rebuild the women’s monastic tradition in Thailand from the ground up.

My confidence in sharing the beauty of their work fuels the bravery I need to get in there like a true photojournalist.  The delicacy of how much and when is a practice of mindfulness in staying ever vigilant to the changing needs of the moment.

morning alms gathering

On the last morning of my stay I was honored to accompany the Bhikkhunis gathering alms as they solemnly walked in the dawning light of the morning.

In Laos I was touched by this ancient practice while photographing local men and women offering rice into the bowls of monks.  This time I walked with the sisters and felt an exquisite tenderness in the deep spiritual exchange between lay and monastic practitioners.

The tasks of adjusting my camera settings in the increasing light of the morning kept the welling tears in my eyes from dripping on the equipment.  The job to stay focused is a crucial practice.  The world needs to witness the contributions these women offer the world.

woman offering alms to nuns

The alms round are still a significant tradition in several Asian countries.  The nuns also organize social welfare in the community and provide learning opportunities for an increasing number of spiritually aspiring women from around the world.

My own training in Zen and Tibetan Buddhist practice helps me appreciate the joy of capturing an ephemeral moment with the click of the camera.  Many nuns of Japan and China also captured the delight of the passing moment in the contemplative art of poetry.

So too, the camera frames the sweet and sad moment as it rises and passes away.  I’m trained as a Buddhist practitioner to notice and let go.  The ordinary moment appears so extraordinary and once again ordinary.  Then it’s gone!

Providence and pluck have placed me in situations such as my brief three-day stay at the only women’s monastery in Thailand.  In Buddhism we understand these factors as causes and conditions meeting to create a vivid opportunity.

I am grateful for the ripened conditions to encounter and record women making history at the leading edge of Buddhist culture today.  Their motive mirrors my own: to reach fearlessly toward liberation with humility and compassion.  I am happy to learn as I stumble along.

nuns offering work service

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