Mae ji (Thai: แม่ชี, Template:RTGS, IPA: [mɛ̂ː tɕʰiː]) are Buddhist laywomen in Thailand occupying a position somewhere between that of an ordinary lay follower and an ordained monk. It is illegal for women to take ordination in Thailand. And they are expected to work essentially as maids to ordained monks, rather than receiving training and the opportunity to practice. Mae ji have traditionally been and still are marginalized figures in Thai society. During the 20th Century, new movements to improve the lot of mae ji but the situation is still far from being acceptable under modern standards of human rights. The Bhikkhuni lineage is being introduced by Venerable Dhammananda,  but oppositions from the high-ranking Thai monks seems to have discouraged mae ji from joining her.
Because the bhikkhuni sangha (the order of ordained Buddhist nuns) 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 ji, taking the eight precepts and living either in monasteries or in dedicated communities of female renunciants. Temporary mae ji (who typically do not shave their heads) are called ji brahmin (RTGS:chi phram) (Thai: ชีพราหมณ์).
Like monks, mae ji shave their heads and undertake precepts not generally observed by lay followers. This is the eight precepts. Mae ji most commonly receive these precepts from a monk, but there is little in the way of a formal ordination ceremony for most mae ji. Mae ji wear white robes in their daily lives, distinguishing them from both monks and other lay people. Mae ji are not technically members of the clergy, and are not recognized as such by the Thai government. 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 ji. An institute now attempts to roughly track the number of mae ji in the country, and provides funds that can be used to provide educational opportunities to mae ji. The amount per person spent on supporting mae ji by the government is significantly less than the amount spent on monks. Likewise, the mae ji do not receive certain perks (such as free passage on public transportation) that are offered to monks. Conversely, mae ji—like monks—are forbidden from voting or standing for civil elections in Thailand.
In addition, mae ji have traditionally not enjoyed the same level of support given to monks by the Thai laity. Because the mae ji have no special position as described in the Tipitaka (they are simply seen as being lay women), gifts given to a mae ji are not seen as bringing merit to the donor in the manner of gifts given to a monk. As most Thais are unfamiliar with the history of the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha, many Thais believe that the Buddha did not intend for women to follow a religious vocation. Others may believe that women have become mae ji only due to an inability to find a husband, or other personal and family problems.
Most mae ji live on the premise of a temple. The temple may provide daily meals for these mae ji in addition to lodgings, but in general mae ji are expected to provide for themselves, through support from relatives. Most mae ji 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 ji live in their own communities, which may or may not be associated with a local monastery. Women in these communities often experience better conditions than women living in traditional monasteries. The separation of the male and female renunciants helps discourage the mae ji 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 ji' 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 ji 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 ji 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 ji 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 ji in Thai society may also play a role in their exclusion from the historical record.
In 1969, the first nation-wide meeting of mae ji was organized by the Sangharaja. During the same year, the Thai Institute of Mae Ji was formed to organize mae ji scattered throughout Thailand. The institute seeks to improve conditions for mae ji by providing better access to education, and screening and placing potential mae ji. The Institution also seeks to ensure that all mae ji possess basic knowledge of Buddhist teachings and proper monastic behavior. The Institute has also attempted to discourage mae ji from begging for alms Instead, older mae ji (who are particularly at risk for poverty) and increasingly placed in old-age homes.
Other female Buddhist orders in Thailand
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 at attempted to be self-supporting through organic farming and daily manual labor.
- dasa sil mata (sil maniyo)- Literally '10 precept mother'. Female lay renunciants in Sri Lanka.
- Thilashin - Literally 'possessor of moral integrity'. Female lay renunciants in Myanmar. A branch of this lineage was also brought to Nepal in the 1930s.
- Siladharas - Order of Theravadin Buddhist nuns at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, UK. They follow the basic 10 precepts, plus a selection of rules from the bhikkhuni patimokkha.
- Temple boy
Kabilsingh, Chatsumarn. Thai Women in Buddhism. Parallax Press. Berkley, 1991. ISBN 0-938077-84-8.