06/09/2014 12:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

7 Surprising Things I Learned About Buddhism While in Thailand


I recently traveled to Thailand and learned some new (and unexpected) things about Buddhism while visiting temples in Bangkok, Chang Mai and Chang Rei.

I enjoyed my visit to Thailand, but wanted to share some lessons (that I learned the hard way) in hopes of saving you any embarrassment or reprimand while you're there.

  1. Women are not allowed to touch a monk or walk in front of a monk.
  2. Women must not only remove hats and shoes, but cover their legs and shoulders before entering a temple.
  3. Women are not allowed to be monks, but can be nuns. The nuns cook for the monks, along with performing other domestic duties, but they don't attend school.
  4. In order to be enlightened, one must be a monk, and in order to be a monk, one must be a man. (Ergo, women, apparently, are not "enlightened.")
  5. Some temples are forbidden for women to enter.
  6. Buddhists believe we reach paradise from school of thought. Every family wants its sons to become monks (but not daughters) to learn literature, Buddhism and to become disciplined. Most Thai men become monks, even if only for a few weeks, months or years. It's their path for education and enlightenment.
  7. The birth of Buddha is almost the same story as the birth of Jesus, but Buddha was born 500 years ahead of Jesus, so who copied whom? Both were born from immaculate conception, both were perfect (Jesus the son of God and Buddha enlightened). Both religions only honor one woman: the mother of these perfect men!

Stephen Colbert has a great explanation of the similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism.

So, my take away from the Thailand spiritual experience is that women don't have much power within Thailand's Buddhist teachings--but there's hope for change! I've seen it in other cultures and countries, and each year I am gratified.

I was mostly shocked by how restrictive things were in Thailand because even the "drunken Irish" have elevated the rights of women since the Celtic times. As I mention in my book Unbridled, when I traveled to Ireland, I met with Wiccans and visited St. Bridget's Well. There, instead of burning witches at the stake, the Irish anointed them as saints, so as to bring women into the Christian church. It's inspiring to hear how the Catholic church has begun to elevate nuns, and now the Buddhist religion is starting to do it as well.

In Thailand, women were granted the right to vote in 1932 (among the first in Asia), and the country has had a female Prime Minister since 2011. Fortunately, it seems that as cultures continue to accept women as equals, the change begins to influence their religions as well.