Ouyporn and I met years ago in a small group during one of George Lakey’s workshops to prepare trainers. I was heading to Asia and needed help in determining what training tools would work well; Ouyporn helped me refine my thinking. Over the years, I kept hearing about her through various activists. Then, one day while I was in Thailand, I opened the Bangkok Post and saw a huge, section-front profile of her life and work. I was delighted to see the impact and the public recognition of her work. I can acknowledge that she helped me along the way, too.
Helping and Healing Women through Feminism and Buddhism
The method that touches only at the head level will not transform people. At most it can make people believe what they have heard or discussed, but their personal behavior will not change. Transformation happens at the heart level.
Sixteen years after her father died she still burned with anger at him. Ouyporn Khuankaew had been born into a peasant family in the rice-farming regions near Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her father was a devout Buddhist, giving over half of the family’s money to the local temple and spending much of his time with the abbot. Meanwhile, his family struggled with poverty. He beat the children and threatened their mother. One daughter fled the violence at home when she was 13. When Ouyporn was 14, she challenged her brother-in-law who had violently insulted her sister. When her father was ailing, she urged her mother not to care for him so he would die and they could all have peace—but her father’s death did not bring her peace.
People don’t see domestic violence as a kind of war, Ouyporn said.
That’s why violence against women is the worst kind of violence, because it can happen every day, at any moment, in your own home, and most of the time by the one you love. She lived as an emotional refugee of that kind of war even as she got her education and began a career. She set out working on the crushing issues women faced when male-oriented programs for rural development left women in a worse situation than before. Under oppressive policies, many girls wound up involved in prostitution. Such tragedies were met with religious acceptance—Karma simply worked this way. Women were at a lower level than men. Out of frustration at this injustice, Ouyporn turned to feminism, but found that
head-oriented Western forms of feminism drew negative reactions from
heart-oriented Thai women.
Rediscovering Positivity Through Buddhism
Then in 1994 Ouyporn came to a new understanding of Buddhist
right practice and committed herself to it.
It helped turn my feelings of anger, frustration, resentment and despair into compassion, loving, forgiving and hopefulness, she said. She reconnected with her rural roots and discovered the meditative dimensions of simple actions connecting one to the soil. Through meditation, she understood what Buddha really taught about suffering and how to end it—and she finally reached a spiritual reconciliation concerning her late father, finding inner joy to replace the anger. As she put it,
If I cannot heal and transform myself from my own ignorance, it is very difficult trying to transform other people.
This inner transformation also empowered her to work constructively on the gender justice issues that were of such deep concern to her. Ouyporn founded and directs the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP). She has also been the director of the Women & Gender Program for the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. She has conducted workshops on a wide range of topics throughout Asia, including nonviolence, anti-oppression work, conflict resolution, peacemaking, democracy and politics, community and team building, women’s rights and trauma. She brings two major themes to her training: Buddhist spirituality and gender. Using
emergent design, where much of the shape of the workshop develops through the interactions with the participants, gender issues always arise. These are vital matters, since gender discrimination throughout Thailand leaves women more vulnerable to forced labor, especially in the sex trade. She designs her workshops so that women and men encounter each other in a non-threatening way, allowing women to express themselves.
Gender oppression is a crucial challenge, Ouyporn believes, because this is the setting in which humans first learn to oppress and to accept it as a way of life. To undo such a deeply engrained principle, Ouyporn offers extended training for several groups of women leaders in Asia. These women share their stories and also find male allies, so the process becomes more than a
woman’s problem. As they explore the structural issues of gender discrimination, women realize that their suffering is not a product of their individual karma, but rather the
structural karma. Men and women begin to work together on solutions.
Challenging Sexism Within Buddhist Culture
Ouyporn pushes the challenge of patriarchy back into Buddhism itself, while at the same time drawing her inner strength from the compassion, peace and mindfulness of Buddhist spirituality. Starting in the mid 1990s, Ouyporn became heavily involved in training programs with monks and nuns, challenging the patriarchy within Buddhism that often leaves nuns in tragically vulnerable positions. At first, even progressive monks were timid to tackle the sexist views of women’s karma so prevalent in Buddhism. Through a Tibetan Buddhist abbess in Dharmasala, India, who had been raped by Chinese soldiers, Ouyporn discovered the healing power of
compassion meditation. Ouyporn sees this as a tool at the center of Buddhist spirituality that helps victims of violence transcend the destructive forces of trauma. Wherever she works now, she encourages activists to develop a spiritual practice as they build social movements so they will not burn out, fall prey to addictions or get caught up in struggles for power and fame. She helps people grow in personal awareness and inner peace as they work together.
Her eyes are always focused on individuals as well as larger issues. Across Thailand, she facilitates workshops for women and men who live with HIV to help them deal with the violence they encounter. Since 2008, she has worked with gay, lesbian and transgender activists in Thailand to build a movement to end homophobia and injustice.
As a trainer, she acknowledges many influences: George Lakey, a model for men who learned to support women in the quest for gender justice; Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher and peace activist; and Kathryn Norsworthy of Rollins College, who taught feminist practice and methodology. Ouyporn has woven these streams of influence through her own experience and into training methods that help to transform some of the most marginalized people of Asia into peacemakers—both within themselves and in the world around them.