What is the historical development of mae jis? And what is their present status?
The oldest historical evidence on mae jis is found in a record written by a Christian missionary who visited Thailand during mid Ayudhya period (arond 17th century A.D.) giving an image of an elderly woman wearing white residing in the monastery compound.
The word ‘ji’ is still arguable. Some mae jis think that it derives from ‘Jina’, meaning “a conqueror,” but this word is usually used for the Buddha, it is doubtful then if mae ji would use the word in the same sense. In the Buddha’s time, there was parivrajika, which means ascetics, but again they belong to a non-Buddhistic sect. There is yet another group known as ‘Ajivika’ also non-Buddhists. In old Thai literature, there is mentioning of ji pluey’ to denote the naked ascetics belonging to the Jain religion. The word ‘ji’ means simply ‘ordained one’ and could apply to both genders. The prefix ‘mae’ literally means ‘mother’, but actually only denotes female gender. Hence ‘mae ji’ should mean ‘ordained woman’.
Legally there is no regulation applicable to mae jis. Generally it implies Buddhist women with shaved head, wearing white, observing 5-8 precepts. They could reside in the temple compound or at home. The Department of Religious Affairs does not consider them “ordained” resulting in the uneven treatment mae jis get from various related ministries. The Ministry of communication does not consider them ‘ordained’ hence they cannot apply for special half fare on train service. The Ministry of Interior considers them ‘ordained’ hence they lose their right to vote when it comes to election time. The monks generally would group them together with upasika, laywomen. According to classical Buddhist grouping, there are monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. Mae jis really do not fit in any one of these categories.
They are not lay women as they observe a more committed religious lifestyle, yet they are not nuns (bhikkhuni) as the bhikkhunis observe 311 precepts and go through ordination procedure where as mae jis have only 8 precepts with no formal ordination.
The Institute of Mae jis under Her Majesty’s Royal Patronage has made a frequent attempt to deal with begging mae jis, considering their action to destroy the image of mae jis in general but the problem still lingers on. As long as there is no definite policy for action, as long as the Department of Religious Affairs has not taken into consideration to clarify the status of mae jis, organizing the registration and issuing I.D. cards for mae jis so that each one may be checked and rightly placed, parasites cannot be weeded out.
Generally mae jis are poor and lack proper education. The general public do not see mae jis as a representation of women trying to lead a religious life. Society, therefore, neither shares the problems that mae jis face nor have any sympathy for them. They become a minority to wade through obstacles on their own without clear direction.
In the past decade, few women from upper strata of society with education, social and financial back-up have become mae jis. They positively help to promote social welfare and improve the image of mae jis. Mae jis themselves become more aware that they need improvement in education even with economic limitations.