Dec. 4, 2009

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


Arnold Zeman said...

Thank you very much indeed for your very limpid exposition and discussion of this controversy and its complex of issues. It is clear to me that it was written with upekka in the forefront.
With metta & great respect,
-Arnold Zeman

pj pilgrim said...

There is some evidence that both Burma and Thailand had bhikkhunis in the past, but this memory has been lost. See:

Secondly, in hindsight, it is easy to ask why Aj Brahm proceeded as he did. But then this question arises only because of the strong reaction from the sangha. Perhaps, few people expected such a reaction from a sangha that had encouraged a reputation of diligent practice and wisdom.

Unknown said...

Dear Bhante,

I'd like to offer the following comments:

1) As I understand, the bhikkhuni ordination in Western Australia was not conducted in secrecy (of course, it depends on how one defines what "secrecy" means!). The 10-precept nuns, the monks, and lay members of the Buddhist Society had been discussing about it for months. The Executive Committee of the Society had been informed and supported it (as told by its President in a recorded talk downloaded from its website). I was also told that about 100 lay members were present at the ordination ceremony.

2) The nuns were not ordained by Ajahn Brahmavamso, but by Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka from the USA, with the presence of 6 or 7 other bhikkhunis. The Bhikkhu Sangha were there only to confirm it.

3) The "official" reason to excommunicate Ajahn B. from the Wat Pah Pong group was not because the ordination was done in secrecy, but because Ajahn B. refused to declare the ordination was invalid, as demanded by the Elders of WPP.


E-B-E said...

Dear Ajhan,

I have a question. Aren't the nuns in Amavarati monastery belong to Ajhan Chah linage?

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Ajahn Brahmali said...

Ajahn Punnadhammo brings up some important issues that deserve a response. Since I was very much part of the deliberations that led to the Bodhinyana Sangha’s decision to ordain bhikkhunis before the WAM, I will attempt to reply to some of his points.

First of all, I agree with all those who say that consultation is very important. If we had thought that we could have combined bhikkhuni ordination with a process of consultation with the Wat Pah Pong (WPP) group, we would certainly have done so. However, it was precisely because we thought the two were incompatible that we decided not to consult.

In brief, these were the main considerations, at least for me personally, in deciding to go ahead:

1. Over the years, it has become increasingly clear that the WPP group would not allow bhikkhuni ordination within its lineage. (This is not meant as a judgement, but simply as a fact.)

2. To me it seems quite clear that any consultation would have lead to enormous pressure not to ordain bhikkhunis. I firmly believe that any consultation through WAM would have lead to the full blocking of bhikkhuni ordination in Perth.

3. The argument that we could then have resigned from the WPP group is easy to make in retrospect, when we have seen the course of subsequent events. But the fact is that no-one at Bodhinyana Monastery wanted to leave the WPP group. When we discussed this issue we specifically considered whether we might get expelled, and Ajahn Brahm stated that he thought it unlikely. Because we assumed it would never happen, we never even considered the idea of leaving the WPP group voluntarily. Even if this possibility had been put to us (which it wasn’t), I think it very unlikely that we would ever have been willing and able to take the step of voluntarily leaving the WPP group. Too many people, both lay and monastic, would have regarded our Thai connections as too important.

4. From our perspective we therefore had a very stark choice: either we could go through a consultation process, starting with but not necessarily limited to the WAM, or we could ordain the four nuns. It was one or the other – not both. Because we considered the ordination of bhikkhunis so important - both to give women the chance to live the monastic life as the Buddha envisaged and also for the greater good of Buddhism – we had to forgo consultation. This was the basis for our decision.

No doubt there are those who will find the basis for our decision flawed. But whatever one may think of this decision, the fact is that the bhikkhunis have been ordained. Surely the time has come to stop arguing over the process and instead start to support the bhikkhunis. Rather than argue over the past, let’s look to the future. Let’s ensure that the fledgling Theravadin bhikkhuni Sangha gets the best possible opportunity to thrive and grow.

Ajahn Brahmali

Ajahn Punnadhammo said...

Re: E-B-E's question;

The Amaravati nuns are indeed part of the Ajahn Chah lineage. But they are not fully ordained bhikkhunis. They have the 10-precept siladhara ordination.

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Unknown said...

The problem arrises because these 'anti bhikkhuni' Thai monks don't know essential Buddhism and haven't familiarized themselves with the Buddha's teachings through the suttas or agamas. Rather, they just believed their teacher and may not even have gotten basic Buddhist teachings like right view. For instance, It is wrong view to believe in an 'original mind' or essential consciousness. This wrong view is clearly stated by the Buddha in DN1. However some thai monks believe this because they haven't bothered to open up the suttas and read what the Buddha taught- they just rely on their teachers. Therefore they can't even lead people out of samsara because they do not have basic right view of non-self.
If they would study the Buddhist teachings than they would be familiar with bhikkhunis and they would be brought up with stories from the suttas and therigatha.

Adam said...

Clinging is clinging... be it to tradition or otherwise. The question we should be asking is why narrow interpretations of the Vinaya have prevented the existence of the Bhikkunhi order, the same order that the Buddha himself established and supported, for so long. This is not a complicated issue, the Vinaya was written under the assumption that the lineage wouldn't be broken... once it was, that rule lost its usefulness (wasn't the Buddha very clear about letting go of the useless?) and a new situation arose that the Vinaya (not to mention the Buddha's example) did address. How was the order originally established before the dual sangha was possible? By Bhikkhus... it logically follows that the answer to re-establishing the order can be seen in this example. Kudos to Ajahn Brahm and his group for having the courage to do what they knew was right... and for not losing sight of the Buddha's intent over a law that no longer applied to the current situation of the Sangha. I would argue that bringing Mahayana nuns into the mix wasn't necessary... but I guess that shows Ajahn Brahm's respect of the custom... and certainly went a ways to placate those who would take form over function.

Metta to all!

Unknown said...

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