It is still illegal for women to take ordination in Thailand, based on a 1928 law created by Prince Chinnawon Siriwat, then the Supreme Patriarch. He based this on the fact that the Buddha allowed senior female monks (the Bhikkhuni Sangha) to give monkhood to women. But, citing the belief that the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha died out centuries earlier, the Prince commanded that any Thai monk who ordained a female "is said to conduct what the Buddha has not prescribed, to revoke what the Buddha has laid down, and to be an enemy of the holy Religion...". The most recent case brought to the Supreme Court of Justice is that of Samana Phothirak, a monk who has been ejected from the Thai Sangha after being convicted of breaching the monastic laws repeatedly. Phothirak then created his own sect of Buddhism and ordained about 80 bhikkhunis in 1998, leading to his imprisonment for 66 months on several successive counts of "causing schism amongst the religion".
Mae chees have traditionally been and still are marginalized figures in Thai society. During the 20th Century, new movements to improve the lot of mae chees emerged. But the situation is still far from being acceptable under modern standards of human rights, with other Thai women often the most vocally opposed to women wearing robes. The Thai Bhikkhuni Sangha has been revived by Venerable Dhammananda, who has not been imprisoned. But opposition from high-ranking Thai monks seems to have discouraged mae chees from joining her.
Because of the belief that the Bhikkhuni Sangha was never established in Thailand, women have traditionally been denied the chance to become ordained members of the Buddhist clergy. Instead, for several centuries Thai women have chosen to live as Mae chees, taking the eight precepts and living either in monasteries or in dedicated communities of female renunciants. Temporary mae chees (who typically do not shave their heads) are called Chee brahmin (RTGS:chi phram) (Thai: ชีพราหมณ์).
Like monks, mae chees shave their heads and undertake precepts not generally observed by lay followers. Mae chees most commonly receive these precepts from a monk, but there is little in the way of a formal ordination ceremony for most Mae chees. Mae chees wear white robes in their daily lives, distinguishing them from both monks and other lay people. Mae ji are not recognized as monastics by the Thai government, and are not eligible for monastic benefits. Yet, they are denied the rights of other lay citizens. While the male Sangha has traditionally received considerable oversight and assistance from various government ministries, only in the 20th Century did the Thai Sangha begin to take an organized role in providing for the needs of mae chees. An institute now attempts to roughly track the number of mae chees in the country, and provides funds that can be used for educational opportunities for mae jis. The amount per person spent by the government, on supporting mae chees, is significantly less than the amount spent on monks. Likewise, mae chees do not receive certain perks (such as free passage on public transportation) that are offered to monks. Yet, mae chees - like monks - are forbidden from voting or standing for civil elections in Thailand.
In addition, mae chees have traditionally not enjoyed the same level of support given to monks by the Thai laity. Because the mae chees have no special position, as described in the Tipitaka (they are simply seen as being lay women), gifts given to a mae chees are not seen as bringing merit to the donor in the manner of gifts given to a monk. Most Thais are unfamiliar with the history of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha, and believe that the Buddha never ordained women. Others believe that women have become mae chees because they can't find a husband or to escape personal and family problems.
Most mae chees live on the premise of a temple. The temple may provide daily meals and lodging. But in general, mae chees are expected to provide for themselves, through support from relatives, and the temples do not care for them as they do their monks. Most mae jis essentially act as servants or staff for the temple, cooking and cleaning for the monks and overseeing the sale of incense and other offerings to visitors to the temple.
Smaller numbers of Mae chees live in their own communities, which may or may not be associated with a local monastery. Women in these communities often experience better conditions those living in traditional monasteries. The separation of the male and female renunciants helps discourage the Mae chees being used as servants by monks and temple staff.
The exact derivation of the term 'mae ji' is not known. Several possible etymologies have been suggested, relating 'Mae chee' either to Sanskrit or Sinhala terms for renunciants, morality, or other positive qualities. The word ji is occasionally used in the Thai language to refer either to Buddhist monks, or to ordained followers of other traditions, such as Brahmanist priests or Jain monks.
Historically, little is known about the status and lives of mae jis prior to Western contact with the kingdoms that preceded the modern state of Thailand. European observers in the 17th Century reported seeing white robed, shaven-headed women who lived on the grounds of Buddhist temples. Most of these women were reported to be advanced in years, possibly indicating that life as a Mae chee may have served as a sort of retirement plan for older women who did not have families to provide for them. Records from prior to this time do not explicitly mention mae chees in Thailand; it is likely that some records were lost in the destruction of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 18th Century. The marginalization of the mae jis in Thai society may also play a role in their exclusion from the historical record.
In 1969, the first nation-wide meeting of mae chees was organized by the Sangharaja. During the same year, the Thai Institute of Mae Jis was formed to organize mae jis scattered throughout Thailand. The institute seeks to improve conditions for mae chees by providing better access to education, and screening and placing potential mae jis. The Institution seeks to ensure that all mae chees possess basic knowledge of Buddhist teachings and proper monastic behavior. The Institute has also attempted to discourage mae chee from begging for alms, as monks do. Instead, older mae chees (who are particularly at risk for poverty) are increasingly placed in old-age homes.
Despite the absence of a full bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand, a number of other groups of female renunciants emerged in Thai society during the 20th Century. The buddha-savikas are a very small organization of women who have received ordination from the Taiwanese lineage. The sikhamats were female renunciants ordained in the controversial Santi Asoke movement. They lived a communal life, kept a strict vegetarian diet, and attempted to be self-supporting through organic farming and daily manual labor.