Can religion be a force for transformation?

Growing up with an abusive father, Ouyporn Khuankaew learned a distorted version of the Buddhist teaching on karma: her mother had done something in a past life to deserve the violence. Now, as a radical feminist lesbian, she teaches activists that Buddhism can be a way to fight oppression

Maia Duerr
28 October 2013

Ouyporn Khuankaew and Ven. Dhammananda. Credit: Maia Duerr. All rights reserved

As a young girl growing up in a rural village near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the 1960s, Ouyporn Khuankaew lived in fear of her father 's physical and emotional abuse toward her mother and her siblings. She would listen with fear and worry, late into the night, as it was often a time when he threatened to hurt them or destroy the house. 

Khuankaew’s story is not unique – Thailand is ranked second worst among 49 countries for domestic violence – but what is unusual is how she transformed the traumatic experience of her childhood into a lifetime devoted to fighting for justice and equality.

Like many other Thai girls, Khuankaew was taught that a woman could not be happy unless she was beautiful, got married, and had children. She grew up with the message that the domestic violence in her family was happening because of a distorted version of the Buddhist teaching on karma: she, her sisters, or her mother must have done something in a past life that merited this terrible consequence.

This belief is pervasive in Thai society, and contributes to the fact that more than 60 per cent of the population thinks that it’s acceptable for a husband to beat his wife. Seven out of every ten women in rural Thailand believe that there are reasons that justify this behavior.

Even as a child, Khuankaew knew that something wasn’t right with this belief. She vowed to do whatever she could to prevent other women from going through the suffering that her own mother had experienced.

Now, fifty years later, Khuankaew is a self-identified radical feminist lesbian – and a devout Buddhist. In 2002, she co-founded the International Women’s Partnership for Peace in Justice or IWP, where she and her colleagues teach Asian activists about structural oppression and how it can be addressed. In this intensely Buddhist country, IWP training courses remind both men and women that the Buddha’s teachings were not intended to justify patriarchy, violence, and abuse, but rather to serve as a vehicle for liberation - both personal and political. In addition to lectures and group discussions, the courses include yoga and meditation, and teachers stress the importance of self-care as an essential part of activism.

In the summer of 2013, Khuankaew and Ginger Norwood, co-founder of IWP, launched the Buddhist Education for Social Transformation program (better known as BEST). Sixteen women from Asia and North America came together for a year-long training course to explore how religion and spirituality can be a force for transformation rather than oppression. The BEST program is based on three foundations - non-violent activism, spiritual practice, and anti-oppression feminism - that combine to show how personal transformation and structural change are interwoven with one another.

Khuankaew’s work is lonely at times. She told me that over the last twenty years very few women in Thailand have addressed oppression from a religious perspective. “Most of the feminists in Thailand are not interested in Buddhism, spirituality, or karma,” she said. “But religion impacts women’s lives - culture and religion work together,” so combating injustice has to involve an examination of the role that religion plays in Thai society.

Buddhist institutions in Thailand like temples and monasteries have consolidated power and privilege in the hands of men for centuries. All boys in Thailand are given the opportunity to ordain as Buddhist monks for a period of time, and receive free education and other social benefits in return.

By contrast, girls have few options and are raised to accept their secondary status in life. Thai Buddhist nuns (called mae chi) cook and clean for the monks but they are not financially supported by their monasteries. Women in Thailand have few other life choices, and often end up as maids, factory workers, or sex workers. Those who have resources and determination try to break this cycle by improving their education.

One of Khuankaew’s closest colleagues is Ven. Dhammananda, who became the first Thai woman to receive full ordination as a bhikkhuni (or Theravada nun) in 2003. She had to travel to Sri Lanka for this purpose, since at that time the Thai Buddhist Sangha forbade women from being ordained. Khuankaew and Dhammananda are working to create spaces where Asian women can come together to study the original teachings of the Buddha, which emphasize that enlightenment is available to everyone, regardless of their gender. Dhammananda is the founder and Abbess of Wat Songdhammakalyani, a Buddhist temple for women near Bangkok, where she is reestablishing the Theravāda lineage in Thailand so that women can become fully-ordained bhikkhunis. She also serves on the core faculty of BEST.

While most of the women in the training program are Buddhists, the group also includes a Catholic nun and a Muslim woman, both from Sri Lanka. Sister Canice Fernando, the nun, is a counseling psychologist and a retired convent school principal who has long been involved in peace and reconciliation work in Sri Lanka. For the last four years she has helped to staff a summer camp which brings together more than 200 young women from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, including Sinhalese, Tamil, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu.

“We give them a meeting place where they can come to know each other,” she told me, “so the program is designed in such a way that they recognize their differences and begin to discover their similarities, or who they are as human beings.” Some of the participants are widows of Sinhalese and Tamil soldiers. “When we brought the widows together for the first time, they looked at each other as enemies. But when they started relating their stories, they began to see that there was solidarity in suffering.”

When I asked Fernando what she took home from the BEST training course this was her answer: “The analysis of power structures is not new to me, because I have studied that in liberation theology from Catholicism. We also talk of nonviolence, but in Buddhism the nonviolent path becomes clearer. Even working with the government or the so-called oppressors, I have started to reflect on other methods of approaching these people. That is something that I got from this course. Listening to Ouyporn, I reflected on how a violent way of doing things begets violence, and I want to start approaching people in a different way.”

This work highlights religion as a powerful, double-edged sword in society. It can inspire people to act for the common good, and it can be high-jacked by those in power to justify oppression. “Reconciliation does not mean forgetting and forgiving,” Fernando told me, “but rather remembering and transforming.”

Her words could well apply to the way that Ouyporn Khuankaew has taken the abusive and violent memories of her childhood and transformed them into a strong commitment to the liberation of all people.

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