Dec. 17, 2009

Questions Raised

Yokie, in the comments, asks

What we want to know (as the verdict is not conclusive) whether those 4 Bhikkhunis are still valid under the theravada tradition and is Bodhiyana monastery still valid under the theravada tradition (as we find that it is
"business" as usual for the Dhammasara Bhikkhunis and AB in Bodhiyana as though oblivious of the issue).There is still a lot of obscurity in this area...The other thing we lay people want to know is, does this tantamount to a schism in the Sangha

The first question is easy to answer; Ajahn Brahmavamso is still a Theravada bhikkhu and Bodhinyana is still a legitimate Theravada monastery. No one disputes this.

As for a schism, I do not think this reaches to the technical definition of schism because no one has questioned Ajahn Brahm's legitimacy as a bhikkhu. All that has occurred is that Bodhinyana is no longer accepted as a branch monastery of Wat Pah Pong, nothing more.

As for the status of the new bhikkhunis, alas there is not the same level of agreement here. To state my own opinion upfront, I do believe these women were properly ordained and are legitimate bhikkhunis and should be treated as such.

Not everyone agrees with this position. There is a view, still widely held in Thailand, that no Theravada bhikkhuni ordination anywhere is valid because the Theravada ordination line was broken. The continuity via the Dharmaguptika is questioned either because of their Mahayana provenance or because the ordinations in China were invalid on account of being done by the bhikkhu sangha only in many cases.

In my opinion, Bhikkhu Bodhi's essay on bhikkhuni ordination has dealt with these issues definitively. It does seem like there is an emerging consensus among those who have studied the issue that the revival of Theravada bhikkhuni ordination via the Dharmaguptika line is proper and valid.

Even among those who accept the possibility of bhikkhuni ordination in theory, a question has been raised by Ajahn Thanissaro as to whether the Perth ordinations were valid according to proper Vinaya procedure. Again, speaking only for myself, I do not find his argument at all convincing. Bhikkhu Bodhi and others have dealt with this particular in some detail; the arguments are very technical and I won't reproduce them here.

I am sorry that I can't give you the certainty that you want, Yokie. But remember Ajahn Chah's "MY NEH" ("whatever"). As a rule, certainty is not to be had in this samsara. The proper practice is not to seek certainty but to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.

For example, I said above that no one questions Ajahn Brahmavamso's status as a bhikkhu. This is not quite true. The conservative wing of the Dhammayut ordination line in Thailand does not accept any of us Mahanikaya monks as valid; visiting a strict Dhammayut monastery we are treated as sameneras (novices) only.

The reality is that any ordination lineage must be traced back to the Buddha. In twenty-five centuries and maybe half a dozen countries along the way there is plenty of room for anyone's ordination to be uncertain. Who is to say that every single ordination along the line was properly conducted in every particular? To let that stand in the way of practice would be very foolish.

Dec. 16, 2009

Elder's Statement

While I would like to start blogging on other topics, both serious and light-hearted, I don't think we can leave the Perth Bhikkhuni controversy behind just yet.

To bring everyone up to date; the World Abbot's Meeting has concluded and the western elders have issued an official statement. This statement states the position of the sangha leadership in a clear and concise manner. The statement agrees with what I've said here, that the main problem with Ajahn Brahm's action has been in the method and the timing. There is a definite conciliatory element as it leaves the door open for consideration of bhikkhuni ordination in the future. It rightly notes that the Vinaya issues are not completely settled.

Already there is a flurry of postings and comments on various sites. The tone of most of these on the Women's Sangha Facebook page and on Sujato's Blog is highly critical. What I find troubling about these is something I've pointed out before; the arguments are framed in secular political terms and not in terms of Dhammavinaya. I have tried to elaborate my thoughts about the difference in the post below, Enlightenment vs Enlightenment.

Enlightenment vs The Enlightenment

(This post was inspired by a sentence in the statement made by the Insight Meditation teachers of Australia - "This was the original vision of the Buddha 2500 years ago, in far less enlightened times than today." Debatable sentiment that, to say the least. See an old post of mine - The Myth of Progress.)

Many of the English words used to translate Dhamma concepts are problematic; unavoidably so as no two languages are completely isometric. Some rather bad translations have become standard and are hard to avoid. The word "enlightenment" used to describe the state of one who has attained the goal is a particularly unfortunate example. It doesn't really translate any term in the Pali very well. "Awakening" as a translation for bodhi is better, but to my taste "Liberation" from vimutti is perhaps the best choice.

One problem with Enlightenment is that it is easily confused, consciously or not, with The Enlightenment of European intellectual history. We are the children of The Enlightenment whether or not we like it or even know it. Beginning in the eighteenth century with thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke The Enlightenment has bequeathed us such modern ideals as equality, personal liberty, freedom of conscience and thought, rationalism and indirectly, democracy.

It is far too easy to blithely assume that the legacy of The Enlightenment has been an unadulterated good. We forget that its first practical project was the French Revolution and the guillotine. The history of the world since has been bloody and cruel. The essentially inhumane systems of both capitalism and communism owe their distant origins to Voltaire and the Encyclopedia. A case could be made that even Naziism, a basically anti-enlightenment movement, came into being by way of Romanticism, The Enlightenment's shadow side, and would have been impossible without it.

This should not be surprising. As we should often remember, this is samsara and it's supposed to be broken. The Buddha's "enlightenment" came from a perfectly awakened mind in touch with the transcendental. The European Enlightenment was the product of the fallible minds of putthujana (the unenlightened many-folk.)

The underlying philosophy of The Enlightenment legacy has been called "secular humanism" and this is a way of thought which is at odds with the Dhamma in at least two important ways. First, its secularism means that it denies any spiritual aspect to humanity or the universe. There is no Unconditioned and therefore no escape from the Conditioned. This samsara is all we've got and we had best make the most of it. Second, it is humanist and that means that Man is the supreme value. This leads to the cult of the individual and a strong re-inforcement and validation of the Self principle. The implicit ideas of Enlightenment Humanism is one reason the anatta doctrine is so difficult for educated westerners.

To translate this into the practical issues confronting us right now. We cannot deny that in Theravada Buddhism for at least a thousand years women have not had the opportunities for practice at a deep level that men have. How we frame the problem defines how we will work toward a solution. A possible statement of the issue in Dhammic terms might be; some beings who have the potential for awakening do not have easy access to the ideal form for achieving that. How can we make the Dhamma more accessible to all? The Secular Humanist formulation would be; women should be equal in all things, including the forms for Dhamma practice. How do we attain this equality?

If the question is seen in terms of gender politics we are far away from the Dhamma. Man and Woman are not ultimate realities, they are dependently arisen transient forms born of karma and craving. If we primarily identify with these forms, we are taking refuge in the conditioned, the suffering and the impermanent. This works both ways; the patriarch and the feminist are both operating at a level of samsaric reality.

It may be appropriate, and even necessary, to work at this level within the realms of worldly politics. But the importation of this cognitive framework into Dhammavinaya moves us away from what should be the central concern; how best to disengage from samsaric identification and realize the Unconditioned.

Another way that secular thinking corrupts the discussion is in the call for "reform." The Dhamma, and the Vinaya, cannot be reformed. They are the product of a sammasambuddha (a perfectly awakened one) and cannot be changed until the next one comes. The Dhamma is not even invented by the Buddha, simply discovered and proclaimed, as the expression of a timeless truth. The Vinaya was invented by the Buddha, on a case by case basis, to deal with community issues as they arose. But is nonetheless a product of a perfectly awakened mind and any change made by an unawakened mind could only be for the worse.

On a practical level, there is no body within Buddhism that is competent to make changes in Vinaya. All that is possible is that some individual monks or nuns, or some communities, may choose to disregard some of the rules. They are still "apatti" (in offence) but may feel justified in doing so in this degenerate age.

This raises a whole range of problems regarding the bhikkhuni vinaya, which is not the same as the bhikkhu vinaya and is more restrictive in many ways. If there were to be bhikkhunis in the Wat Pa Pong tradition would they, like the bhikkhus of that tradition, attempt to follow the vinaya whole? Besides the practical issues arising from that, how would that satisfy the secular feminists who are so loudly advocating full ordination for women?

A final thought; there are three kinds of the "I Am Conceit." I am superior to you, I am inferior to you and I am your equal. All three are equally delusions.

Dec. 10, 2009

Restoring Harmnony

I would like to attempt a reply to the very eloquent and heartfelt note left in the comments by a poster identifying himself as "EH."

This situation has unfolded like a Greek tragedy. The protagonist is a very good, upstanding monk, well known and respected internationally especially as a meditation teacher. Acting with the idea, no doubt, that he was doing something right and proper he committed one fatal act of hubris and the rest of the characters were forced to play out their roles. The original act came from a noble intention to make the holy life accessible to those who have previously been shut out. The opposition came from the equally noble intention to preserve intact a precious heritage.

I agree with the poster that the most important thing now is a restoration of harmony. Hopefully the passage of time will help. With Ajahn Brahm now outside the official circle of the WPP sangha it may be possible to gradually restore friendly relations with his group as with any other group of outside monks. In my experience, bhikkhus of quite different traditions and practices can almost always get together in a harmonious way. The Abhayagiri sangha has a very close and fruitful interchange with the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a Chinese Mahayana monastery with many bhikhshunis, for example.

The poster ends with a plea for me to do something. Unfortunately (or fortunately perhaps) my influence is limited. Arrow River Forest Hermitage is an associated monastery, not a branch of Wat Pah Pong; I don't have many contacts left in Thailand and in any case my Thai language skills are on the lean side of Nit Noy (very little.) I hope I can contribute just a little by this blog.

To return to the Greek tragedy metaphor, one thing that concerns me, and indeed brought me to the decision to offer my own thoughts, is what I perceive as a certain element of discord coming from the Chorus; the various blogs and fora.

Not everything being said is skillful or conducive to harmony. If any of my words come into that category, I humbly beg forgiveness. In some quarters, emotions are running high and we should all try our best to come from a place of equanimity and clear seeing.

Too often the discussion gets far away from the Dhamma and Vinaya and is couched in secular political or western psychological language. This kind of discourse is not helpful, it is divisive and in the circumstances inappropriate. It is also intellectually lazy, it is easier to label someone with a different point of view with a label like "misogynist" than to try and understand with wisdom and compassion the complex layers of community relations, tradition and Vinaya involved. See another excellent comment by LV which touches on some of the difficult aspects involved.

The Buddha cautioned many times against attachment to views and opinions. It is not that we shouldn't have an opinion, but that we should hold them lightly and be open to hearing other views. We should also remember what is most important, that the Dhammavinaya is about transcending this conditioned realm, not trying to make everything perfect here, which can never be.

Dec. 8, 2009

More on the Bhikkhuni Controversy

My recent post on the Bhikkhuni controversy (see below) has generated a fair bit of feed-back, in private correspondence as well as in the comments, both here at at the Women's Sangha Facebook page.

I would just like to add a couple of points; one correction and one explanation.

First, the correction. I had imagined I was fairly well read on Thai history and on the history of Buddhism in general. But like most people, I had been following the conventional wisdom that there never were bhikkhunis in Thailand. This turns out to be quite wrong. Some research by Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni has been brought to my attention by several parties, including the author. A more accurate conclusion would be, (in Tathaaloka's words;)

Within the domains of the current Chakri dynasty of Rama kings, since its
foundation; that is, in the Ratanakosin Era from the Ayutthaya Period through the
Bangkok period (1782 CE -present), Thailand has not yet had a royally- or State-
sanctioned and supported Bhikkhuni Sangha with dual ordination.

Her essay can be found here - The main body is a paper presented at the recent Hamburg conference but the historical information about Thai bhikkhunis is to found near the end, in an appendix. This appendix at least should be read by everyone who wants to have an informed opinion.

Unfortunately, this information will have little immediate effect on the issue of bhikkhuni ordination in the Thai tradition because the great majority of Thai and also western Buddhists remain, like I was last week, ignorant of it. Has it been translated into Thai yet?

Now for the explanation. Some respondents have thought I was too hard in my appraisal of Ajahn Brahmavamso's actions and even accused me of just "repeating talking points." On second consideration I realize I wasn't really clear in stating my objections. Let me try again. Hopefully without recourse to "talking points."

Bodhinyana Forest Monastery was a branch monastery of Wat Pah Pong. Membership in a group entails both privileges and responsibilities. A member of the group should do his best to follow the rules of the group, sometimes surrendering his own views and opinions to those of the larger collective, or its leadership. This is especially true in a sangha grouping where harmony is a very important quality.

If in all good conscience a member of a larger group believes that a ruling by the leadership or the collective is wrong, then he has two proper courses of action open to him. He can either work within established channels to change the policy in question, or failing that, he can secede from the group and carry on independently.

Even in a case where the individual is right according to either first priciples or Vinaya or both, it is disrespectful to take a deliberate action contrary to the policies of the group while still expecting the privileges of group membership. It is especially disruptive when this is a very public action which puts the leadership and other members in a difficult position.

Dec. 4, 2009

Blogging Again

The Bhikkhuni Controversy

On Oct. 22nd 2009 at Wat Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia the ordination of four bhikkhunis was performed under the auspices of the abbot, Ajahn Brahmavamso who participated as chanting acariya. This was the first time that women were given the higher ordination in a branch monastery of the Ajahn Chah tradition. The act was done unilaterally by Ajahn Brahmavamso without the approval of the hierarchy or the greater sangha. It immediately opened up a very troublesome and divisive controversy. The elders of the tradition in Thailand called a meeting on Nov.1 to which Ajahn Brahmavamso was requested to attend. The result of that meeting was the expulsion of Ajahn Brahmavamso, and Bodhinyana, from the Wat Pa Pong group of monasteries.

There is now a great deal of chatter in various Buddhist corners of the internet regarding this series of events. Some harsh things are being said, and there is not always a full understanding of all the complex issues involved.

To begin with first principles; gender is irrelevant as far as realization of the Unconditioned is concerned. Men and women alike are enmeshed in samsaric suffering caused by their cravings and played out by their kamma, and the path out to liberation is the same for both. That being said, these lofty ideas may be cold comfort when the actual history of Buddhist institutions has not been fully supportive of women's aspirations.

(The next few paragraphs deal with the historical background, if you are already familiar with this information you can skip on ahead)

The problem in Theravada is that the women's order, established by the Buddha, died out completely at an early date. At that time, the Theravada school was pretty much entirely limited to Sri Lanka and after a disastrous war was nearly lost altogether. The male order of bhikkhus just barely survived, the female order did not fare even so well as that. When the Theravada spread in a later time to South-East Asia it came with the male order only. So Thailand and Burma have never known bhikkhunis. (This is an important point to remember.)

Indeed, for about two thousand years there were no Theravada bhikkhunis anywhere in the world. However, female monastics did survive in one lineage from Northern India, the Dharmaguptika, which was another of the original eighteen schools, more or less co-eval with the Theravada. In the peregrinations of later history, this lineage found its way to China and became the Vinaya foundation for the Mahayana schools. Many thousand of Mahayana bhikkshunis in East Asia, especially in Taiwan, hold this Dharmaguptika ordination at the present time.

About a quarter century ago a movement began to re-instate the bhikkhuni lineage in Theravada using the nuns of the Dharmaguptika tradition to perform the initial ordinations. This has had some success in Sri Lanka where there are now several hundred bhikkhunis.

About the same time, the western branches of the Wat Pah Pong tradition established the ten-precept siladhara order as a compromise to improve the opportunities for women without taking on the then very radical step of re-instating full ordination. It should be remembered that this was, at the time, a very progressive step in itself.

Here is an important historical and cultural difference between Sri Lanka and Thailand. Sri Lanka has a cultural memory of bhikkhunis; every school-child has seen pictures of the nun Sanghamitta bringing the cutting of the Bodhi Tree to the island standing in the prow of a dragon boat. No such cultural memory exists in Thailand, where the whole idea of female monastics must seem a strange importation from the Mahayana.

(End of historical background, back to the current controversy)

With this background, I'd like to consider the current controversy. There are many aspects of this; the issue of gender equality, the technical issues of Vinaya, the real concerns about respect for tradition and sangha harmony and not least, the question of skill in means.

Reading many of the comments by lay-people on various internet fora, it seems that many (not all but many) people cannot see anything more than the first issue, that of gender equality. Not to minimize the importance of that by any means, but it is far from being the only consideration. To read some of the comments, it seems that some people believe this is a simple case of men wanting to control the power and oppress women. I sincerely believe that is a very simplistic and actually wrong reading of the situation.

If we believe, (as I do) that women are the spiritual equals of men, and further that bhikkhuni ordination is, in theory, a positive development the very next question must be, is it even possible according to Vinaya? This is a very complicated issue with lots of controversial minutiae and it seems to get more complicated the more you look into it. I will not attempt to do that here; if you want to get a taste you can read Bhikkhu Bodhi's article given in the links which follow this post. Suffice it to say that this has been argued back and forth now for twenty or thirty years and the consensus seems to be emerging among those who have taken the time to go back to the texts that it is legal and possible. There seems to be no good reason to reject the validity of the Dharmaguptika Vinaya lineage. The Theravada-Mahayana split does not really come into it; the Vinaya lineage is a separate thing altogether from schools of interpretation of Dhamma.

Nevertheless, bhikkhuni ordination is far from being universally accepted in Theravada and there are plenty of Vinaya conservatives even in Sri Lanka who maintain that these ordinations are not legal. I do not think they are ultimately correct, but there arguments are not without some cogency. Vinaya is a very complex and legalistic subject and there will always be controversies of interpretation.

The anti-bhikkhuni arguments are not based on some putative idea of the inferiority of women. Rather, they reject the legitimacy of the Dharmaguptika continuity. If there is any prejudice involved, I think it is more likely to be a religious one; a rejection of anything tainted by the Mahayana "heresy."

Even if we cross the first hurdle and accept the legality of bhikkhuni ordination, there remains the concern for tradition and hierarchy that is at the core of the Theravada generally and the Thai Forest Tradition especially. The Theravada is a tradition that has survived intact for twenty five centuries, it is literally "the school of the elders." We have a very great reverence for the teachings and ways of practice that have been passed down to us from our spiritual fore-fathers. The whole tradition is very resistant to change. This may from time to time prove problematic, as perhaps in the present situation. But in the long run it has proven our especial strength.

It pains me to read some of the comments which portray the Thai elders as some kind of misogynistic patriarchy. I honestly believe that gender issues as we understand them in the West do not enter into it at all for the Thai elders. Their primary consideration, I think, is the preservation of the purity of Ajahn Chah's tradition against outside influences.

Consider it from their point of view. Thailand has never had bhikkhunis. The issue of full ordination for women, a lively one in the west and in Sri Lanka, has just barely began to register among the Bangkok intelligentsia. It was not even on the radar as a distant blip for the monks in Isan until the news came out of the blue that one of the western branch monasteries had performed a bhikkhuni ordination. This was their worst fears coming true, some weird Mahayana ideas infiltrating the remoter branches and beginning the corruption of the pristine tradition. They felt they had no choice but to sever the infected limb before the disease spread.

They may be wrong about the legitimacy of bhikkhuni ordination, mostly because they have never seriously examined the issue, but the Thai elders are not motivated by what we in the West would call sexism. These are very devoted monks, with a great love and respect for the traditions of their lineage and a strong motivation to keep it intact.

The western elders, for their part, are put in a very difficult position. Even if, as many do, they may support the idea of bhikkhuni ordination in theory, they also feel that reverence for tradition and wish at all costs to keep on good terms with the Thai hierarchy. They are caught between the pressure of their own laity, many of whom don't see beyond the first point about gender equality, and the Thai elders, who take their stand on continuity of tradition.

This brings up the final point, about skill in means. Even if we agree that bhikkhuni ordination is legitimate, and further that incorporating it into the Ajahn Chah tradition would be a positive development we can still question the wisdom of this particular act, at this particular time.

The bhikkhuni ordination at Bodhinyana was performed on Oct 22. The World Abbot's Meeting had been scheduled for Dec 8, with Bodhinyana acting as host. The preparations for the ordination were made in secrecy, it only being publicly announced two weeks or so ahead of time.

Why perform an unauthorized act, which even if valid in itself, would inevitably cause great disharmony and controversy? I don't like to be put in the position of criticizing a monk senior to myself, but I cannot see the wisdom in the way Ajahn Brahmavamso proceeded.

Especially when you consider that it wasn't at all necessary to proceed in this way. He could have waited until the WAM (which had the issue of female ordination on the agenda anyway) and brought forward his proposal to begin bhikkhuni ordinations for the discussion of the assembled elders. If, as is quite possible, no agreement could be had, if Ajahn Brahmavamso still felt that this was the right way to proceed he could then have respectfully resigned from the Wat Pah Pong group and announced that he was going his own way. Surely this would have been better than acting in a rebellious fashion and getting himself expelled! It would have at the very least moved the issue onto the front-burner in a respectful and harmonious fashion. Instead, there is a big painful controversy and attitudes against female ordination have hardened.

In all the letters and statements that have been published on this issue, I have yet to see from Ajahn Brahmavamso or anyone in his camp a clear and cogent explanation of why these ordinations needed to happen before the World Abbot's Meeting. I do not want to speculate on his reasoning; I do wish he would come out clearly and speak to this point.

In conclusion, it is to be hoped that all parties interested in this issue will try and take a broad view and look a little more deeply into the complex issues involved. More light and less heat, please.


Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination - essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi examining the Vinaya issues
Timeline and History - from DhammaWiki
Bhikkhsuni Ordination in Tibetan traditon - very similar issues involved
Summary of Public Statements - from all sides, very good reference
My article from 2000 - a simpler time perhaps? for historical reference
Sujato's Blog - a blog by one of Ajahn Brahm's key supporters
Women and the Forest Sangha - Facebook page by supporters of the ordination