Women in Buddhism: Questions & Answers


Why some families in the north sell their daughters so that they can give ordination to their sons?


Thai people hold on to the value that to have their sons ordained is the highest form of merit making. In the village, when a son is 20 years of age, it is a popular practice to arrange for ordination with 3 days celebration

prior to the actual ritual of ordination. The ‘calling kwan’ ceremony could last through the night by hiring the best vocalist to narrate the story of how the mother had to endure suffering of childbirth. Therefore, the merit for ordaining a son is believed to go directly to the mother. Then the family has to pay for the parade, taking the would-be monk to the monastery with various kinds of offerings handed by pairs of young girls. The procession could be so elaborate that it takes up half a kilometre long. Then there are offerings for the preceptor, and a pair of teachers responsible for the teaching and training of the would-be monk. A chapter of a minimum of 10 monks is required. Each one of them is expected to receive an offering. These are the expenses that well-to-do families are willing to go through at an ordination. Other families with less income always try to live up to this standard of having elaborate celebration. Ordination, a simple ritual of a person to let go of defilement, turns into a social function for a family to show off their wealth. When the original purpose shifted, some families without their own means to meet such expense are willing to sell their daughters, the only valuable property, in order to provide an elaborate ordination for their sons.

The eldest daughters of the family are usually requested by their parents to ‘sacrifice’ for their younger siblings and to be ‘grateful’ to do this favour for their parents. The parents receive ‘advance money’ from agents from Bangkok so that their daughters can go to ‘work in Bangkok’ which could include working as sex-workers.

The emphasis on the value of ordaining a son is a very highly recognised social value particularly in the village. Ordination is the only time that the mother is given highest honour as she actually is allowed to lead the precession, a place of honour to walk in front of the would-be monk holding the robe in her hands. Normally it is the men who would take the lead in all rituals in connection with the monks and the temples.

A related custom still practised is to ordain a son before he gets married, with the belief that all the merit would go directly to the parents. But if the son is already married, the mother might have to share the merit with the daughter-in-law. Such belief, though common, is not the real Buddhist understanding. Buddhism allows women to be ordained themselves. Spiritual salvation is completely her own achievement, not based on devotion through her husbands as held in Hinduism. Women do not have to wait for the sons to perform the final rites to allow her to enter heaven. The fear of a daughter-in-law sharing the merit with the mother is also based on insecurity. Merit may be compared to candle light, by lighting other candles, the light from the original candle does not minimise in any way. On the contrary, the more one lights other candles, the more one brings light into the world.

An important point that Thai women put much emphasis on ordination of their sons is because they themselves have no opportunity to be ordained, so they depend totally on their sons to bring them this highest form of merit. If women have opportunity to be ordained, daughters can equally bring the highest form of merit to the parents. Instead of being asked to ‘sacrifice’ to have younger brothers ordained, they themselves can bring about that highest form of merit by being ordained themselves. Then she no longer has to play the ‘second fiddle’ and can equally express her gratitude towards her parents directly through her own commitment and action.