The study of Theravada Buddhism and gender has often focused on the relationship between men's and women's roles, particularly their differing ability to become fully ordained monks. Yet in Thailand, as in many parts of the world, gender is more complicated than the binary of just men and women. Scholars have noted that what it means to be a man in Thailand is often defined in terms of not being effeminate, gay, or transgender. Drawing on Thai news stories, social media comments, and ethnographic research, I explore how monastic masculinity—the way in which what it means to be an ideal monk informs notions of being an ideal man—is constructed through the assertion that effeminate gay or kathoei (transgender) individuals cannot and should not be ordained. Taking into account such broader social constructions of gender and sexuality is important to better understand the relationship between masculinity and Buddhist monasticism.
The study of Buddhist monasticism and gender in Thailand has often centered on men's and women's differing ability to be ordained: men are able to be ordained, whereas women are barred from becoming monks (see, e.g., Falk 2008; Keyes 1984). Gender studies scholars have long argued, though, that gender is more complex than the binary of men and women, with each being defined in opposition to the other (Morris 1995). Ideals of masculinity, the social expectations of what it means to be a man within a particular context, are defined not only in relation to ideals of femininity but also in relation to other forms of masculinity that exist outside the social ideal (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005; Pascoe 2007). In Thailand, for instance, monastic masculinity—the way in which what it means to be an ideal monk informs notions of being an ideal man in Thai society—is largely defined in opposition to effeminate men. Scholars of gender and sexuality in Thailand have noted that masculinity is constructed not in opposition to femininity but rather to effeminacy or, more precisely, being kathoei (กะเทย),1 a broad gender and sexual category that can denote transgender women or effeminate gay men (Jackson 1995).
In this article, I explore how Thai masculinity is defined in relation to male effeminacy in the context of the Sangha (the monastic community), revealing the role of religion in reinforcing ideals of Thai masculinity. I draw on the field of critical men's studies, which seeks to bring the insights about gender and sexuality from feminist theory to bear on the study of men and masculinity (Ford and Lyons 2012; Kimmel, Hearn, and Connell 2005; Whitehead 2002) in order to better understand monasticism's role in shaping gender in contemporary Thailand.
Such an analysis brings into dialogue two broad bodies of literature in Thai studies. The first is the literature on the role of temporary monasticism in developing boys and young men morally, educationally, and socioeconomically. The second is the literature on Thai conceptions of gender and sexuality, emerging categories of such identities, and how these conceptions impact notions of femininity and masculinity in Thailand. The first body of research has elucidated the ways in which being ordained as a monastic—a monk or novice—is an important step in the life course for many Thai boys and young men and thus closely connected to notions of masculinity (see, e.g., Keyes 1986). However, much of this work relies on a dichotomous understanding of gender: monasticism is tied to masculinity because men can be ordained but women cannot. That is, monastic masculinity is defined in relation to women's inability to be ordained readily as bhikkhunī (fully ordained female monks) in Thailand. Such a dichotomy, though, does not fully take into account the complexity of masculinity (Connell 1995). This complexity is evident in the rich literature on gender and sexuality in Thailand, which has shown that Thai masculinities are constructed not only in relation to femininity but also in relation to effeminate gender categories such as the older category of kathoei and newer categories such as gay (เกย์).2 Thus, what it means to be a “real man” (chai thae, ชายแท้)—a term used to denote a “normal” (pokati, ปกติ) heterosexual man—in Thailand is defined not only by not being a woman but also by not being a kathoei or gay.
Taking monastic masculinity as one form of masculinity that Theravada Buddhists construct in their everyday lives, the relationship between masculinities and effeminacies can help us better understand monasticism's role in reinforcing ideals of what it means to be a “real man” in Thai society. In this article, I look more closely at the boundary of ideal monastic masculinity and how it is reinforced by monastic and lay communities. Looking at how this boundary is reproduced within monasticism, I argue, is necessary to more fully understand Theravada Buddhist monasticism's role in defining what it means to be a Thai man.
I draw on three cases that highlight how monastic masculinity is defined in opposition to effeminacy. These examples come from my ethnographic fieldwork in Thailand, largely in northern Thailand around Chiang Mai Province, conducted between 2010 and 2014. The examples include (1) instances of seemingly effeminate monastics and the resulting moral panic that emerged over the presence of such non-“real men” within the monastic community; (2) a nationwide program to encourage more “real men” to be ordained temporarily; and (3) popular “summer novice ordination programs” (khrongkan buat sammanen phakrueduron, โครงการบวชสามเณรภาคฤดูร้อน) held across the country that teach boys about the ideal form of monastic masculinity that they are supposed to embody during their time as temporary monastics.3 Despite the concerns about kathoei or gay men being ordained that are revealed in these examples, many such effeminate men are ordained. Thus, I look at why such monastics are tolerated, highlighting how the boundaries of ideal monastic masculinity continue to be actively debated in contemporary Thailand. Before delving into these cases, though, it is important to more fully understand what the literature has said about gender and sexuality broadly in Thailand, as well as the relationship between gender and religious roles in Theravada Buddhism.
Defining Thai Masculinity by the Ability to Be Ordained
The way in which monasticism shapes gender in Thailand has long been framed in terms of women's relation to monasticism, since they cannot be ordained as monks (i.e., bhikkhunī). While bhikkhunī are recognized by the monastic communities in Mahayana Buddhist contexts such as China or Vietnam, the recognition of bhikkhunī in Theravada Buddhist contexts such as Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka is more contested (Tomalin 2006). Believing that they are upholding the monastic code, the Vinaya, as originally promulgated by the Buddha, Theravada Buddhists stipulate that bhikkhunī must be ordained by Sanghas of both male and female monks with clearly established lineages in the Theravada tradition. Since the historical lineage of bhikkhunī in Theravada Buddhism disappeared centuries ago, there is no established lineage of bhikkhunī in Theravada Buddhism that can ordain women (Anālayo 2017). While some women in Thailand are ordained as bhikkhunī (Battaglia 2015), they are not recognized by the Thai Sangha or government because the female monks who ordained them are not recognized as belonging to an established lineage of Theravada bhikkhunī.
Women's inability to be fully ordained has led to scholarly debates about whether such inability is indicative of the subjugation of women in Thai society. It should be noted, however, that women's religious roles across Thailand are not monolithic but vary regionally (Bowie 2011). Nonetheless, a prime example of this debate concerning women's role in Thai Buddhism is that between Thomas Kirsch and Charles Keyes. For Kirsch (1982), there were limited roles in Buddhism for women. The ability of men to be ordained as monks, one of the most meritorious acts, meant that religious life was primarily the purview of men. Keyes (1984), however, suggested that women have a key role as “nurturers” of Buddhism. In response, Kirsch (1985, 311) contended that the notion of “nurturing” need not be limited to a characteristic of women or mothers and that Keyes's arguments demonstrated “that Thai Buddhist gender images of rural women are multiple not singular.” While the potential religious roles for women in Buddhism were multiple, the role for men remained singular. Men could and should be ordained as monks.
Such a focus on the ambiguity of women's religious roles is not surprising, as gender studies more broadly has often focused on social roles for women. Gender studies has largely looked at how social, political, economic, and religious forces—including Buddhism—shaped and constrained women's position in public and private spheres of life. For instance, scholars have highlighted how the ambiguous relationship between extolling material beauty and notions of decay and impermanence in Buddhism shapes women's lives in Thailand (Van Esterik 2000). The role of mae chi or eight-precept nuns (Cook 2010), women Pali-language instructors (Collins and McDaniel 2010), female meditation teachers (Schedneck 2017), and women's roles as organizers of novice ordination ceremonies (Eberhardt 2006) have expanded our understanding of women's roles in Buddhism. Yet the backdrop of these studies is that Buddhist masculinity is defined by the ability to be ordained as a monk, and thus it is unnecessary for men to engage in these alternative Buddhist roles as women do.
Men's sole ability to be ordained as monks in Thailand has often led researchers to focus on other effects of monasticism rather than how it defines masculinity. For instance, being ordained has long been a key way for boys and young men to develop themselves and their families socioeconomically (Bunnag 1973), particularly for those from poorer families (Schedneck 2019). The ability of a monastic education to improve a man's economic standing continues today, not only in Thailand but also in surrounding Buddhist regions such as Sipsong Panna (Casas 2016). Drawing on the connection between monasticism and education, many have suggested that monastic ordination has been a key way to build the Thai nation (Ishii 1986; Smith 1978; Tambiah 1978; Winichakul 1994). Alternatively, some have suggested that monasticism may be a position from which men can challenge the state (Bowie 2014; McDaniel 2011). In either case, the focus of such research has been on the connections between sociopolitical changes in civil society and their relation to changes within the monastic community (Suksamran 1982), rendering monastics as political beings rather than gendered per se.
When scholars have addressed the relationship between monasticism and masculinity more directly, it has often been in relation to the political possibilities that monastic masculinity opens up and the resulting reinforcement of the gender hierarchy in Thai society. Anthropologists have long characterized temporary monastic ordination as an important rite of passage in nearly all young men's lives in Thailand, connecting becoming a monk or novice to the ideal life course for men (Keyes 1986). The self-disciplinary practices of monastic life transforms one into a more morally restrained man upon leaving monkhood (Rhum 1994). The merit (bun, บุญ) and prestige or perfection (barami, บารมี) that a man develops as part of his monastic training—in addition to the more esoteric practices that a monk may train in, such as protective amulets or tattoos—can, in turn, endow lay men or former monks when they return to lay life with a form of masculinity that is both spiritually and socially powerful (Turton 1991). Such forms of powerful or influential lay masculinity include those associated with sports (Kitiarsa 2013; Vail 1998), “godfathers” (เจ้าพ่อ; Ockey 2004), the rough but powerful “tough guy” or nak leng (นักเลง; Reynolds 2011), or the “gentlemanly” soldier (Streicher 2012). These masculine figures, along with their religious and spiritual training, reinforce male-dominated society and men's political power (cf. Ockey 1999).
Scholars of gender and sexuality in Thailand have noted that Thai masculinity is defined not only in relation to femininity but also in relation to effeminacy. As noted by Peter Jackson (1995), manliness is not defined in opposition to womanhood but in opposition to kathoei-ness. In the study of the relationship between monasticism and masculinity, it is important to see how monastic masculinity is defined in relation to other forms of masculinity and in relation to feminine roles in Buddhism. It is also necessary to better understand how monastic masculinity is defined in relation to effeminate forms of gender and effeminate monastics. Keyes notes that the connection between ideal masculinity and monasticism is in many ways ambivalent because of the high visibility and tolerance of male homosexuality within Thai society (Keyes 1986, 96). How exactly this ambivalence shapes monastic masculinity, though, has received little attention. Given the way in which morality informs conceptions of gender in Thailand and monasticism's key place in defining good morality, it is important to look at how effeminacy is handled within the Sangha and between lay and monastic communities (Käng 2012). Only then can we see how monasticism works to define the boundaries of ideal manhood. To look at this relationship, I turn to three cases that illuminate the ways in which monastic masculinity is defined in relation to kathoei-ness.
Moral Panics over Effeminate Monastics
Over the last several years, there has been much media coverage of effeminate-acting monks and novices, who are often referred to in the media as “sissy monks and effeminate novices” (phra tut nen taeo, พระตุ๊ด เณรแต๋ว). In the early 2010s, news reports describing effeminate monks and novices wearing makeup, tying their robes tightly or in a way that suggested that they had breasts, and walking through shopping centers yelling and singing came up every few months (see, e.g., Daily News 2014 ; MThai News 2010 ; Post Today 2013 ). The presentation of monks and novices in “non-normative” (mai pokati, ไม่ปกติ) gendered ways sparked a concern among many laypeople that the monastic community was not upholding the ideals of monasticism.4 Acting in nonmasculine ways—behaviors that would not be attributable to “real men”—jeopardized the standing of the Sangha. At the same time, effeminate monastics’ threat to the Sangha's image reinforced monasticism's connection to ideal forms of masculinity, as the following example highlights.
In December 2011, at the height of a flood gripping Bangkok, television news programs and newspapers reported on a video posted on YouTube showing a monk dancing in a small boat while helping move supplies and people away from flooded areas (Ekachai 2012). By commentators and news reports, he was labeled the “coyote-dancing monk” (phra somten khoyoti, พระซ้อมเต้นโคโยตี้) because of the particular way he was dancing. “Coyote-dancing” refers to a tabletop style of dancing that was popular at the time among young women working in go-go bars, especially within the Soi Cowboy area along Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. This area is known among Thais and foreigners as a popular destination in the sex tourism industry. The dance style's name comes from the 2000 American film Coyote Ugly, about a group of young women who work at a nightclub in New York City.
Comments and discussions that emerged in reaction to these reports highlighted people's concerns that such nonmasculine behavior jeopardized the moral standing of the Sangha.5 Online comments talked about the degeneration of monkhood resulting in the degeneration of Thai society. As one commenter put it, “Things just keep deteriorating following people's minds and following modernity. [It'll continue] until people's minds stop deteriorating. Then Buddhism will flourish, but that's a long way off. Everyone, we need to take care of ourselves.” For this person, an effeminately dancing monk was indicative of a morally degenerate Sangha and a society caught up in processes of modernization that were leading to Buddhism's deterioration.
For some commenters, the need for monks to act according to the ideals of monastic comportment meant being more masculine. One woman wrote about needing to keep in mind the gendered aspect of monasticism: “Being a real man [chai thae] is admirable because they can be ordained. I'm a woman who wants to be ordained and so I'm very devout. I see this—ugh!” Such a hierarchy of genders according to their ability to be ordained was a common sentiment expressed by informants during my fieldwork, too. One female teacher expressed something similar. She was disappointed that she had been born a woman because that meant she could not be ordained; however, she hoped that in a future life, she would be born as a man so that she could be ordained. For this commenter, the effeminately dancing monk broke the gendered expectation of monasticism that only “real men” are ordained. The monk presumably was not a “real man,” and therefore she expected him not to be ordained but to wait, like her, until he was born as a man to be ordained as a monk. In this way, the sight of an effeminate-acting monk reinforces the idea that monasticism is the purview of “real men” only.
Surveilling monastic behavior, posting videos of transgressive acts such as a dancing monk, and commenting on such actions are a prime example of what Brooke Schedneck (forthcoming) calls the “lay Buddhist gaze.” Thai Buddhist laypeople are on the lookout “to expose and criticize bodies that do not adhere to the image of an ascetic renunciant,” as Schedneck notes. Such criticism of monastic behavior is justified by laypeople because of the social contract they have tacitly entered into with monastics: laypeople provide food and other requisites to the monks, who are a field of merit—worthy recipients of offerings—because of their ascetic rigor. The “lay Buddhist gaze,” such as posting and commenting on dancing monks, works to ensure that monks are fulfilling their part of this social contract.
Commenters also expressed concern over how Thai Buddhism would be perceived by non-Buddhists if they saw the images and videos of effeminate-acting monastics. As another commenter on the video put it, “It's not proper at all for those who are real monks. I am in Yala Province at the southern border. I worry every time there is news about monks spoiling the [religious] way because other religions will be able to attack Buddhism. This is one reason that they kill truly practicing monks in the south [of Thailand].” Such comments draw on the history of tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand's southern provinces, including Yala (Aphornsuvan 2007). Concern over the weakening of Thai Buddhism by inappropriately behaving monastics amplifies existing perceived threats to Thai Buddhism by non-Buddhists both inside and outside the borders of Thailand.
Protecting the border between “real” monks and those who are not “real men” but merely wearing the robes becomes a metaphor for protecting the borders of the Thai nation. The monastic body becomes a stand-in for the national body.6 By monitoring monks’ behavior and discouraging certain effeminate men from being ordained, many also try to monitor and guard the national borders. The threat to the monastic body, here, is effeminacy.
The coyote-dancing monk was labeled by many commenters as a kathoei monk because of his bodily movements. His sexualized dancing marked this monk's kathoei-ness, not being fully a “real man,” and thus not being qualified to be ordained. As one person noted, “Gay and kathoei . . . shouldn't be ordained because the Buddha forbade them from being ordained.” In instances in which kathoei are ordained, it creates spaces to reaffirm that monasticism should only be available to certain men, thus reproducing the defining boundary around monastic masculinity.7 Such rejection of kathoei being ordained, however, does not always happen, as the following case demonstrates.
Redefining the Boundary between Kathoei-ness and Monastic Masculinity
In 2013, the story of Phra Jazz stormed across Thai media in newspapers, television, social media, and online forums.8 Born Sarawi Natthi and later going by the nickname “Jazz,” he was crowned Miss Tiffany Universe in 2009.9 Miss Tiffany is a popular transgender beauty contest in Thailand. After several years in the beauty contest and fashion industries, Jazz decided, as he told reporters, to “start a new life” (Kom Chad Luek 2013 ). He returned to his hometown to be ordained as a monk. When the announcement went out that he would be ordained, debates began in online forums about whether he could actually be ordained or whether he was just trying to “cause a sensation” (sang krasae, สร้างกระแส).
In the media, the question of whether Jazz could be ordained was cast in terms of the status of his body. An article in the daily newspaper Kom Chad Luek indicated this in its title: “National Office for Buddhism Director Declares ‘Phra Jazz’ Is a Man, Can Be Ordained.” The article went on to explain,
The director of the National Office for Buddhism clarified the suspicion about whether or not third gender individuals [khon phet thi sam, คนเพศที่สาม] can be ordained: The Vinaya is clear that being a bantho [บัณเฑาะก์, Pali: paṇḍaka] or kathoei means one cannot be ordained. If they are ordained, they must leave monasticism. But if the ordinand has the body and heart/mind the same as a normal man [chai pokati, ชายปกติ]—as in the case of Phra Jazz when he took out the silicone or other womanly things from his body so he had the figure of a normal man, not the heart/mind of a woman—he can be ordained. It is at the abbot's discretion.
The abbot of the temple where Jazz was to become a monk had determined that he was a man and could be ordained. Such discretion of the abbot points to the general independence and flexibility that local temples and their abbots have, which may not always align with the Thai government's attempts to exert more control over the Sangha. Jazz's ability to be ordained depended largely on the state of his body. Prior to being ordained, he had removed his silicone breasts and stopped taking hormones that had given him a more feminine physique. News reports also emphasized he had never undergone sex-reassignment surgery. That is, he had male genitals.
The other main question regarding his eligibility for ordination was the state of his heart/mind (chitchai, จิตใจ). The director of the National Office for Buddhism indicated that an ordinand must have the heart/mind of a “normal man.” In the case of Phra Jazz, the state of his heart/mind was confirmed in two ways. First, he expressed an intention to remain a monk for a long time, perhaps for the rest of his life. The newspaper Thai Rath (2013) reported on Phra Jazz's ordination, “Previous Miss Tiffany 2009 has decided to be ordained with the intention from the beginning to be a monk for life.” Second, news reports often included statements about how he had been heavily involved in practicing meditation in the years prior to his ordination. One television news reporter stated, “[Phra Jazz] said before he was ordained that he'd been interested in Buddhism and practicing the Dhamma the previous two years.” Sometimes included, too, was a statement on how he wanted to be ordained for his parents, especially his father, who had suffered from health problems.
These intentions for ordination resonated strongly with many Thais. In being ordained for one's parents and demonstrating a desire to adjust himself to the monastic life, Phra Jazz was not threatening the institution of monasticism. Instead, he was reinforcing lay expectations that a monk should focus on following the monastic rules and devoting time to meditation practice, the qualities promoted by detracting commenters on the coyote-dancing monk video.
Such a positive image of a person wanting to uphold the rigors of monasticism likely resonated with the Thai public, which had recently suffered the scandal of Phra (Luang Pu) Nenkham, who was alleged to have embezzled nearly 10 million US dollars, impregnated a 14-year-old girl, and purchased several Mercedes-Benz cars. The image of this “jet-set monk” (as he was described in English-language media) wearing designer sunglasses, carrying a Louis Vuitton bag, and riding in a private jet spread across not only Thai media but international news outlets, too (CNN 2013). This case of a decadent monk was the latest instantiation of a long history of scandals in Thailand involving wayward monks. The immorality of Phra Nenkham and similar scandals perhaps led to the welcoming of Phra Jazz's desire to uphold the morality of monasticism by being ordained for the correct reasons and not taking advantage of his position.
The case of Phra Jazz highlights the relationship between gender and the body. One reason he was able to be ordained was that he had a male body. His body had been temporarily feminized through silicone and hormones. The removal of these materials, though, returned his body to that of a “normal” male body. While he may have altered his body in the process of becoming Miss Tiffany Universe, he was able to change it back to a male body. And this male body was grounded in his genitals, which never fundamentally changed. He was able to reaffirm his being a man by reaffirming his male body. This underlying male body was the justification that the abbot used to determine that he was not a paṇḍaka or kathoei, and thus could be ordained.
Paṇḍaka is a gender and sexual category that appears in the Vinaya (Harvey 2000). Exactly what genders and sexualities during the time of the Buddha the Vinaya refers to is unclear, although later commentaries suggest five types of paṇḍaka, some of whom can be ordained (types 1 and 2) and others (types 3–5) who cannot (DeGraff 1994, 110–11):
A man whose sexual desire is fulfilled through oral sex with another man
A man who has been castrated
A half-time paṇḍaka (i.e., a person who is a paṇḍaka for half the month)
A person born without clearly distinguishable sexual organs
In Thai, the Pali term paṇḍaka is often translated as kathoei; as a result, many people think that kathoei cannot be ordained since some kinds of paṇḍaka cannot (Nawanram 2008). However, it is important to note that a detailed knowledge of the Vinaya and its commentary is not common among Thai Buddhists. Doctrinal prohibitions should not be taken as social understanding of why certain individuals (e.g., paṇḍaka or kathoei) cannot be ordained. The relationship between the monastic rules of the Vinaya and the everyday rules that govern monks’ behavior in a given context is not a clear one-to-one relationship (Schonthal 2018). Regardless of the commentaries’ discussion of paṇḍaka and their ability to be ordained, what more often governs whether kathoei can be ordained is how unseemly they appear as monks to the laity.
Phra Jazz's ability to appear as a well-behaved monk led to his acceptance as a monk. His gender, his being kathoei or man, was able to shift. As a transgender beauty pageant winner, he was able to claim being kathoei and the stereotypical expressions that went along with that gender: being concerned with appearance, wearing makeup, and being interested in fashion. As his intentions shifted, though, his gender shifted toward the gendered expressions that went along with monasticism: an interest in adjusting himself to the monastic rules and spending his time studying Buddhism and meditation. By shifting his intentions, he was able to shift his gender toward that of a “real man,” hence someone who could be legitimately ordained as a monk.
The case of Phra Jazz provides an example of how kathoei or gay monastics may reinforce linkages between monasticism and masculinity, albeit in a way different from kathoei monastics, such as the coyote-dancing monk. Rather than insisting that all kathoei and gay be prevented from being ordained, cases like Phra Jazz's raise the possibility that some kathoei and gay can be ordained so long as they enact monasticism in a way that corresponds with current ideals of how monastics should act.
National Ordination Campaigns and the Nostalgia for “Real Men”
Moral panics over images of effeminate-acting monks and debates over kathoei being ordained provide interesting case studies for how monasticism facilitates the boundary making between masculinity and kathoei-ness. In this section, though, I look at a nationwide campaign organized by Wat Dhammakaya to encourage boys and young men to be ordained temporarily during the three-month rains retreat. Wat Dhammakaya, a prominent sect of Thai Buddhism, has more recently—since the military coup in 2014—become a target of anticorruption campaigns by the military government's National Reform Council. However, during the time of my fieldwork, the sect's prominence and significance within Thai Buddhism was mostly respected. Such respect often came from more conservative, middle-class urbanites in Thailand, to whom Wat Dhammakaya's elaborate ceremonies and media presence appealed. While it has at times been described as a cult-like movement, the legitimacy of Wat Dhammakaya is widespread throughout Thailand (Laohavanich 2012).
In early 2010, Wat Dhammakaya launched a program to ordain 100,000 men throughout Thailand as monks for one phansa (พรรษา), the three-month rains retreat. The project's stated objectives, in the “Principles & Reasons” section of the Dhammakaya Foundation's website about the program states:
The country of Thailand is known as the land of Dhamma, in which Buddhism has taken root and has existed for a long time. The essence of the Buddha's teachings has seeped into the rhythm of life for the Thai people. It has become tradition. As a result, Thailand has become known as “The Land of Smiles,” a place of happiness on earth.
Key to maintaining the prosperity and happiness of the Thai nation is to support Buddhism so that it is strong throughout the country, which is the heir of Buddhism because it is a place that is strong in the Buddha's teachings. The maintenance of the Buddhist tradition, which is the responsibility of all Thai Buddhists, lies in the ordination of Thai men, who are extremely important for sustaining the flame of Buddhism.
From three prior projects . . . came the plan to ordain 100,000 monks in all villages across Thailand for Khao Phansa this last year 2553 . Admission into the project was overwhelming. The Sangha of virtuous men and the member organizations that joined in the project were immeasurably pleased. All agreed that this was the time to join together in helping restore the custom of being ordained as a monk and to return to the core principles for Thai men such as in previous times. (Dhammakaya Foundation n.d.)
This excerpt demonstrates a number of links between Buddhism and the ideals of Thai manhood. The prosperity of Buddhism and of Thailand presumably rests on men whose duty it is to be ordained at some point in their life, which is a “core principle” and an important tradition in Thailand. As it states, “The maintenance of the Buddhist tradition . . . lies in the ordination of Thai men.” If men properly maintain traditions, the statement suggests, then Thailand will remain a place of happiness, a “Land of Smiles.” Such statements echo those made by commenters on the video of the coyote-dancing monk. They were concerned that inappropriately behaving monks—especially those who acted in effeminate ways—would jeopardize the standing of Thai Buddhism. Dhammakaya's statement similarly encourages a connection between needing “real men” to be ordained and the strength of the religion in Thailand.
There is a nostalgia evident in this program's description of the traditional relationship between masculinity and the institution of monasticism. Michael Herzfeld (2005) defines “structural nostalgia” as the longing for an idyllic past in which society was simpler and self-regulatory without the need for any intervention from the state. A certain structural nostalgia for a past in which men did their duty by being ordained and supporting Buddhism is present in Dhammakaya's description of the program. Nowadays, large institutions such as Wat Dhammakaya need to intervene to remind men of their duty as men. A similar sentiment that informants often expressed to me during my fieldwork was that fewer men were being ordained than in the past, and those who did were staying monastics for shorter periods of time, sometimes only for a day. The worry here was that the decline in men being ordained would lead to a lessening of merit generated for oneself, one's family, and one's nation. This sentiment is also made explicit in Wat Dhammakaya's statement of objectives for its program:
In order that the Dhamma of the Lord Buddha may spread across the country of Thailand so that it may cut off tensions and move past dangerous crises towards strength and progress. [ . . . and that] people of all villages throughout Thailand may join in the accumulation of merit in this project of ordaining men to be good models for bringing about other projects like this throughout Thailand.
By returning to an idealized past in which all men were ordained as monks to be “good models” for society, the project sought a solution that did not require state intervention in the contemporaneous crises in Thai political and social life. If more men were ordained as monks, there would be no need for state involvement in encouraging the development of Buddhism. In encouraging men to be ordained, though, Wat Dhammakaya's project sought to attract only certain kinds of men.
The project's concern over the kind of men who should be ordained was expressed in a series of advertisements. I saw these ads in urban areas of Bangkok and Chiang Mai as well as in rural areas surrounding the city of Chiang Mai.10 This ad campaign focused on persuading only “real men” to be ordained as monks. One ad read, “Inviting all real men to participate in an historical ordination” (“real men” was emphasized in the original using a larger font size), with an image of a young man dressed in white having his head shaved by a monk. Another ad read, “Being born a man, one must not fail to be ordained.” Dhammakaya's program assumes a link between the well-being of a traditional Buddhism and prosperity of the Thai nation. A key part of this traditional Buddhism is men being ordained as monks.
By seeking only “real men” to be ordained as monks, Wat Dhammakaya's campaign reinforced a boundary between different kinds of masculinity. It did not divide those who should be ordained and those who should not be ordained between men and women. Instead, it separated “real men” from those who are not “real men,” emphasizing that only those men who are not kathoei or gay should be ordained. By ensuring that only “real men” were ordained as monks, the program drew a distinction between monastic masculinity and other genders who could not fit the masculine role associated with monasticism. The program and its advertisements did not, however, fully articulate why there was concern over only “real men” being ordained. Bringing the previous section's discussion on the moral panic surrounding effeminate and kathoei monastics into dialogue with this campaign, though, it is likely the case that such programs were attempting to get more “real men” to be ordained in order to make the Sangha appear more masculine and reduce the perception of the monastic community as effeminate.
Novice Ordination Programs and the Reproduction of Monastic Masculinity
The concern over the paucity of “real men” in monasticism was not limited to large organizations like Wat Dhammakaya. Nor was it limited to individuals with adequate time and resources to comment on online media pertaining to effeminate monastics. In April 2013, I followed a “summer novice ordination program” in a rural subdistrict of northern Thailand located about 20 kilometers outside the city of Chiang Mai. Such programs gave boys the opportunity to be ordained as novices for several weeks during their summer break from school. About three-quarters of the boys were ordained just for the few weeks of the program. The other quarter of the boys were ordained in order to remain novices for several years and to finish their secondary education as novices. Such boys often came from poorer families and could attend secondary school at temple schools for free. Regardless of the boys’ backgrounds or reasons for being ordained, the monks leading this program instructed them in what it meant to be a good novice.
One morning, the novices were sitting in the vihara, the main temple hall, waiting to start their Buddhist history class. The monk who was teaching that day struck up a conversation with the novices about the state of men in Thailand. He told the novices that it was good they had been ordained because “presently in Thailand there are fewer men.” He went on to lament that men in Thailand are increasingly “sissies” (tut, ตุ๊ด) or gay. The novices laughed a little at this statement but did not say much. The monk teaching the class went on to ask the novices, “How many kinds of gay are there?” In response, one of the novices yelled out, “tom” (ทอม).11 Another novice corrected him, saying that tom are women. A third novice yelled out the name of one of the other novices whom everyone had assumed was kathoei. The novices erupted into laughter until the monk got them to settle down so that he could start the lesson for the day.
The novices may have been a little confused over what gay meant, but there was no question of what they thought about kathoei being ordained. A few days prior, I was talking with a group of novices and a layman. One of the novices, playing with the lid of an old paint can and some rocks, began to sing. The layman asked him to stop, reminding the young novice that singing broke the seventh precept of the novices, to refrain from singing and music. With the topic of novices’ rules raised, the other novices started talking about what else they were not allowed to do because of the precepts they took. One of the novices chimed in, saying that the rules “forbid kathoei” (ham kathoei, ห้ามกะเทย). Another added that “sissies can't be novices” (tut pen nen mai dai, ตุ๊ดเป็นเณรไม่ได้). When I asked the novices why kathoei could not be ordained, I was met with blank stares from all of them. Apparently, it should have been obvious to me why they could not be ordained. It seems the inappropriateness of kathoei being ordained was what Pierre Bourdieu (1984, 471) calls “doxa,” an understanding of how society is organized that is self-evident and unnecessary of any justification.
Conversations with other informants highlighted a concern that the presence of effeminate monastics could negatively influence novices and young monks who were “real men.” A layman in his late thirties, who was from Nan Province in northern Thailand and had spent several years in the city of Chiang Mai as a monastic to go to school, explained this concern to me like so:
Those being ordained need to be far from women. If there's a monk who's a kathoei, it will mean the monks are not that far from women. Buddhism teaches that [monks] should distance themselves from these things: desire, desire for women, and various sexual desires. However, if there's a kathoei who enters, it will cause inappropriateness in the hearts of those monks who are men. This might cause some things—some good things—to decline or cease to be. So, it's not appropriate. The more one is a teacher, the more one is an example for students, the more one is a model. If a teacher is kathoei whom students see as a kathoei, they'll think it's good. They'll want to be kathoei. It will continue in this way to a negative place, a bad place.
For him, kathoei monastics not only jeopardize Buddhism, they also pose a threat to Thai masculinity by spreading the trendiness of kathoei-ness.12 The threat of contagion that kathoei monastics pose to Thai society and the state of “real men” is exacerbated by the presumed inability of effeminate monastics to follow the ascetic life. As the layman continued, “If novices act as monastics [should], then there's a tenet that they don't act in a way that breaks Brahmacharya [the celibate life] of monks.” The presence of gay and kathoei, especially in social positions like monasticism, where they are to be teachers and moral exemplars, threatens Thai monastic masculinity. The close proximity of a stereotypically highly sexualized figure such as a kathoei or gay monk would jeopardize the celibacy of other monks, and thus the masculine traits that they are supposed to be developing as monastics, such as the control of desires. This layman's assumption that kathoei inherently pose a threat to monks by sexually tempting them mirrors assumptions about paṇḍaka at the time of the Buddha (i.e., they should not be ordained because of stereotypes that they were overly sexual; see Jackson 1998).
From this point of view, guarding monasticism from certain effeminate genders is an attempt to guard “real men” from further decline. For some, effeminacy is a weakening force for monasticism and the “real men” who are supposed to make up its ranks. In programs like the summer novice ordination programs, young monastics have such notions of the relationship between monasticism and masculinity reinforced. The idea that Thailand is experiencing a decrease in the number of “real men” and the role of temporary ordination to make sure that “real men” stay front and center within the monastic community strengthen notions that monastic masculinity is defined in distinction from kathoei-ness.
At the same time, such concern about protecting monastics from gay and kathoei points to the blurring of gender and sexual categories in Thailand. As with the coyote-dancing monk, being identified as a kathoei often entails a stereotypical assumption that one is overly lascivious. In the monastic context, any sexual activity is anathema to the celibate life. Thus, appearing to be of a certain gender (i.e., kathoei) entails being assumed to have a proclivity toward hypersexuality and overt sexualized behavior. That gender and sexuality are so intertwined for some Thais means an effeminate-acting monk is suspect of not only being sexually active but also tempting monks who are “real men” to break their vows of celibacy.
Tolerance of Kathoei and Gay Monastics
Despite the dismay expressed online toward effeminate monks, uncertainty around Phra Jazz's ability to be ordained, and nationwide programs to limit monasticism to “real men,” a large number of kathoei and gay are ordained as monks and novices in Thailand. Their presence raises the question: Why is their ordination tolerated?
I suggest two reasons for this tolerance. The first is that, for some, the ability to be ordained is ultimately about the body. So long as the person being ordained has a male body, it does not matter if they are kathoei, gay, or a “real man.” This reason also points to the complex interaction among sex, gender, and sexual categories in Thailand. The second reason is that people do not want to discourage the meritorious act of being ordained so long as the ordained monk acts in ways that are generally acceptable for monastic behavior.
The Body and One's Ability to Be Ordained
That kathoei and gay monastics are tolerated because their bodies are ultimately male was exemplified by a number of discussions I had with monks during fieldwork. The following ethnographic example highlights this reason why it was ultimately acceptable for kathoei and gay to be ordained.13
In June 2014, I was at a ground-breaking ceremony for a new school being built at a temple. I sat down with a group of laypeople and a monk, Phra Mai (a pseudonym), whom I had known for several years. We got on the topic of what religious roles were available for women and kathoei in northern Thailand. One of the laymen described how there were a lot of kathoei monks in Lampang, a major city in northern Thailand located about 100 kilometers southeast of Chiang Mai. He recounted how he was “shocked” (tok cai, ตกใจ) when he went to Lampang and saw several monks with apparent breasts. The mood of this conversation was lighthearted. No one expressed condemnation toward such monks. This joking, lighthearted telling of the story—common in my discussions with informants about effeminate monastics—belied the genuine curiosity these laypeople had about which genders were able to be ordained.
As our conversation continued, this man expressed doubt that such individuals should be able to be ordained. With Phra Mai present, he turned to the monk for his expert opinion. Phra Mai explained that people of both or uncertain sex could not be ordained, but this was determined at birth. If a baby was born and the parents or doctor were not sure what sex the baby was or thought it was intersex, then that person could not be ordained later in life. However, if the baby was determined to be male at birth, then he could be ordained. The laypeople present were a little surprised by this response. “So kathoei can be ordained?,” asked the man. They could, Phra Mai reiterated, so long as they were categorized as male at birth. The body and the determination of an individual's sex were the deciding factors for whether one could be ordained.
For individuals such as Phra Mai and the laypeople he instructed on whether kathoei could be ordained, the question was ultimately about the body. Even if the presence of kathoei monks who act and look effeminate in some regards may not seem wholly appropriate, they could be ordained because their bodies were male, which was the primary stipulation for being allowed to be ordained.
Such a view of kathoei and gender more broadly complicates the previously explored view that the gender category of kathoei entails a certain sexuality or proclivity toward sexual behavior. In this alternative view, one's gender (i.e., whether a person is kathoei or a “real man”) is tied to sex and the biology of one's body, which is separate from one's sexuality (cf. Morris 1994). In Phra Mai's explanation of why kathoei can be ordained, sex and gender are distinguished from sexuality. From this perspective, the prohibition against kathoei being ordained is not that they are inherently hypersexual, as some contend, but that their biological sex was indeterminate or intersex at birth. If such indeterminate sex is not the case, though, one who embodies a kathoei identity may still be ordained.
Comporting with Ideal Monastic Behavior
Phra Mai's and other monks’ understanding of the doctrinal technicalities of the requirements for ordination is perhaps one reason kathoei or gay monks are tolerated. However, most laypeople likely do not have an in-depth knowledge of the detailed requirements for ordination laid out in the Vinaya. Instead, tolerance of kathoei and gay monks may be due to the meritorious benefits of ordination, which people do not want to interfere with, especially if the monk in question is intentionally trying to lead an acceptable monastic life. This was the case for Phra Jazz, whose ordination appears to have been largely accepted—or at least tolerated14—because of his good intentions for being ordained and his commitment to the monastic life.
Such tolerance was made apparent to me in conversations with monks and laypeople as they discussed how they reconcile discrepancies between the ideals of monastic behavior they held and the actions of actual monastics. Finding a balance between ideal and actual monastic behavior not only arises in negotiating what gendered behavior is tolerated from monks, but more broadly in determining how strictly monks are expected to follow rules laid out in the Vinaya. As I have suggested elsewhere (Chladek 2018), finding this balance is about ensuring expectations for monastic behavior are not so onerous that no one can live up to them but also not so lax that monastics disregard all expectations. The monks themselves tried to find such balance when it came to gendered behavior, too.
I spoke with one such monk, a health teacher at a school for novices in the city of Chiang Mai, about finding this balance. I joined this monk along with four novices in the main meeting hall. As the novices worked on arranging flowers for a ceremony, the monk and I started talking about gender:
Me: I'm interested in gender because some people here have said that in the city there are a lot of novices who are gay or kathoei. They think it's a problem or something not very good. I'm not sure, though, why they think it's not very good.
Monk: Their mannerisms are inappropriate.
Me: Inappropriate how?
Monk: Inappropriate for monastics. There are many precepts to observe. Showing their mannerisms, bringing in new things like technology, adorning the body; these things go against that. But truthfully, we can't forbid it. They are ways for kids to feel that they can control something of their own. For me, it's not a problem. Laity, though, will wonder if it's appropriate.
Me: Honestly, I don't think it's a problem. However, if most Thai people think it's not appropriate, how do you teach your students when some teachers want them to have a life that is appropriate [according to the laity], that follows society?
Monk: If kids are already this way, can we really forbid it? Their hearts/minds are already this way. Don't force them. It can't be done. Some kids kill themselves. This is a roundabout way of killing kids. We don't take a small blemish and make it into something negative, do we? You have some abilities. Show those. . . . We must have a way of life that's not too bound to the monastic frame. Conduct yourself in a way that's appropriate—that's good—along with conducting yourself in a way that's up-to-date, that's modern.
In this way, he is suggesting how gay and kathoei monastics could be accepted or at least tolerated in Thai society. The laity could try not to get caught up with a “small blemish” like a monk's or novice's effeminate mannerisms. Instead, they could focus on good things that such monastics do and encourage them to pursue those abilities. They cannot change these gendered behaviors lest they harm these young monks and novices. Such concern about forcing children to do things they do not want to do and the negative consequences is similarly noted by Nancy Eberhardt (2006, 81). She notes that in the Shan Buddhist context in northern Thailand, “a person's desires or preferences are not culturally/socially constructed but, rather, essential to the person—emblematic even—and, hence, somewhat arbitrary and mysterious. . . . Therefore, one should be wary of forcing a child to do something that is against its will.” In the context of monasticism, a novice monk is expected to adjust himself and his behaviors in order to be a good monastic. Forcing him to adjust too much, however, could be detrimental, and so there is some tolerance of nonideal behavior.
Such tolerance is more likely if the monk acts in ways that are considered good. In my conversations with monks who identified as gay or kathoei, they expressed a similar sentiment. One gay monk I interviewed on the outskirts of Chiang Mai explained how he focused on organizing community events that supported the temple, which he believed was the reason for laypeople's tolerance of his being a monk knowing that he was gay. Expression of such a sentiment was not an isolated event. A stereotype of kathoei and gay monks that I frequently encountered was that they were particularly skilled at making their temple grounds and events organized at their temples beautiful and attractive. Such attractive displays drew in laypeople to the temple, whose presence and donations in turn supported Buddhism. Drawing in laypeople to listen to the Buddha's teachings, make offerings, and engage in other meritorious actions is a key duty of monks. By doing something beneficial for Buddhism, kathoei and gay monks may be tolerated by laypeople even if their effeminate behaviors do not align with their ideals of monasticism.
In investigating the connection between monasticism and masculinity in Thailand, scholars have often focused on two ways in which monastic masculinity is defined and reproduced. The first looks at how Thai Buddhism informs gender roles for men and women. By looking at these gender roles in terms of men being able to be ordained while women cannot, these studies rely on a binary model of gender in which masculinity is defined in opposition to femininity. A second way in which scholars have looked at monastic masculinity is by studying the ways in which monasticism produces a certain kind of masculinity in relation to other masculinities associated with things like sports, politics, or the military. While the latter set of studies begins to take into account the multiplicity of masculinities, there has been an aspect of Thai conceptions of gender often missing from these studies—namely, how male effeminacy relates to the definition of monastic masculinity.
I have argued that monastic masculinity is often defined in opposition to kathoei-ness. This process centers on the moral panic that arises at the sight of effeminate-acting monastics, whose presence, for many Thais, elicits feelings of inappropriateness and concerns that Thai Buddhism is in decline. The perceived decline of Buddhism is coupled with the sense of a simultaneous decline in “real men” and a weakening of Thai masculinity. In response, many laypeople and monastics feel it is important to prevent kathoei from being ordained. In limiting monasticism to “real men,” the monastic community and its lay supporters reinforce the gender hierarchy in Thai society by placing masculine “real men” who are able to be ordained—and obtain the merit (bun) and prestige (barami) that comes along with ordination—at the pinnacle of this hierarchy. Yet guarding traditional monastic masculinity by discouraging the ordination of kathoei, gay, or other effeminate males is not the whole story, as many such individuals are ordained in contemporary Thailand.
Tolerance for effeminate-acting monks stems from the view held by some that the ordination requirement of being a man in Theravada Buddhism is about the physical body. While their effeminate behaviors may not be ideal, kathoei and gay are permitted to be ordained because their bodies are male, meeting the requirement for ordination. Those who disagree with this reading of the ordination requirements or who are unfamiliar with them, though, may still tolerate kathoei and gay monks who are able to promote Buddhism through their actions.
The tolerance of such monks, however, should not be taken as acceptance, let alone encouragement for effeminate men to be ordained. Social media responses to videos of effeminate-acting monks and national movements that encourage “real men” to be ordained show pervasive concern around the appearance of a feminizing Thai Sangha. Programs for boys to be ordained temporarily show how the institution of Thai Buddhist monasticism continues to position itself as a site for the development of “real men,” bolstering their position as superior to effeminate men and women who should be discouraged from seeking ordination. Yet whether kathoei and gay monks are discouraged or tolerated, they reveal how gendered roles in Thai Buddhism are more complex than a simple division between what roles men and women can fulfill. Even if only men are recognized as able to be ordained in Thailand, what kinds of men can be ordained continues to be worked out socially, further revealing the complexity of monasticism's connection with the ideals of Thai masculinity.
My thanks to Brooke Schedneck, Piyawit Moonkham (Jiw), Jennifer Cole and the members of her ethnographic writing seminar, as well as the Gender & Sexuality Studies writing group at the University of Chicago for all their input. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback. This research was supported by the Society for Psychological Anthropology/Lemelson Predissertation Award, made possible by the Robert Lemelson Foundation, the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation (Award #1226854), the ENITS Research Scholarship, and the Rynerson Research Fund.
In transliterating Thai, I use the Royal Thai General System.
I Romanize the Thai word เกย์ as gay to make clear the word's connection to the English word “gay.” While borrowing from the English word, the Thai concept of gay is not always equivalent to the word's typical connotation in English-language contexts—that is, a durable identity in which a biological male is sexually attracted to other biological males (Jackson 2004). In Thai, gay is commonly used as a noun rather than an adjective, as it is in English.
For a more detailed description of these programs, see Chladek (2018).
For an example of lay people's discussion around such images, see a thread on Pantip, a popular online Thai discussion forum, from March 2014: https://pantip.com/topic/31761583 (accessed December 29, 2020).
The comments quoted in this article were posted to the YouTube page with a video of the monk in question: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJLd_YlHf7c (accessed January 18, 2012).
For more on how the monastic body represents the national body, see Jerryson (2011).
For more on the exclusion of sexual and gender minorities from ordination, see Gyatso (2003).
“Phra” is an honorific title for monks in Thailand.
I use the pronoun “he” for Phra Jazz as the case I present here makes the claim that Phra Jazz could be ordained as a monk because he asserted that he was a man.
My thanks to Prakirati Satasut (Biek) for first directing me to these ads.
Tom (ทอม) is a gender/sexual label typically used to describe women who act in masculine ways and are primarily attracted to women, especially feminine-acting women, or di (ดี้). For more on homosexuality and masculinity among women in Thailand, see Sinnott (2004). I maintain the English spelling of tom to make its connection to the English word “tomboy” clearer.
For more on kathoei-ness being “in trend” (อินเทรนด์), see Käng (2012).
For a fuller account of this ethnographic vignette, see Chladek (2017).
See Jackson (1999) on the difference between tolerance and acceptance regarding gender/sexuality in Thailand.