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.


xinuflux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eh said...


Let's say everyone agrees that it was disrespectful...

Now what...

Are we to continue to foster disharmony and hinder the growth of the Buddha Sasana because we feel slighted.

I cannot see how it is beneficial for the people who support Ajahn Brahm to not have an understanding of the beauty of some of the beings who reside within the Wat Pah Pong Sangha.

I cannot see how undermining the other good activities of Ajahn Brahm and Buddhism in Australia, particularly Western Australia, can be of benefit to anyone. I'm referring here specifically to the report that someone at Wat Pah Pong saw fit to inform a venue in Singapore that had been booked for a Dhamma Talk by Buddhist Fellowhsip, that Ajahn Brahm (who was to give said talk) was not a monk to be supported (or words to that effect). Its also come to my attention that they also sent an email to the Thai ambassy in Singapore and as a result, those who were to attend that talk from that place, didn't do so.

This is rather saddening for me.

As I said, let's agree that Ajahn Brahm did not act well, the process was not skillful.

Is this a reason to sabotage the efforts of an otherwise good monk? A monk who is in no small measure responsible for the translation of the Vinaya that is used in most Western monastaries. A monk who has successfully created faith and interest in Buddhism. A monk who has made it possible for the maturity and acceptance over time of a Buddhist community in what is essentially a non-Buddhist country.

Is this all to be destroyed for one single act of disrespect?

Are there no voices of moderation amongst the ranks of the Wat Pah Pong Sangha on this issue.

I used the word 'saddening'; I think 'heartbroken', 'depressed', 'despairing' are more accurate terms.

Bhante, I get the impression from this posting and the previous that while there is much to be revered in the Wat Pah Pong Sangha (I have not taken down my photos of Ajahn Dtun and Ajahn Anan) there also seems to be a lack of understanding (I mean no offense whatsoever in using these terms) about the Bhikkuni issue. (Forgive me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that while Enlightened Beings have perfect understanding of Dhamma, they may not necessarily understand worldly matters; ie. they too are left to rely on their education and conditioning) Perhaps this is because there was a never a need to be educated on this. Perhaps it's because of the beautiful focus on meditation over study. For example, I understand that it had to be explained to some of the respected Thai Ajahns that Ajahn Brahm was not the preceptor at the nuns' ordinations (as you may well know, it was Ayya Tattaloka). And it sounds to me that they were not aware of the legality of the ordination and of the fact that it was not possible for Ajahn Brahm to state these ordinations were invalid as it would be going against the Vinaya.

Respectfully, Bhante, are you not in a position to help re-dress this state of mis-information that is happening on the Wat Pah Pong side. Are there not those who can travel to the Isan and explain the real circumstances. Certainly berate Ajahn Brahm for his lack of respect, for his lack of skill, for his limited understanding (I guess he is also limited by his education and conditioning); but the rest of it...Ajahn, please, please, please...most of us are watching powerlessly. Do you not, or others such as yourself, have the power to restore a balanced view.

I beg you on bended knees...please do something...

Unknown said...

Dear Ajahn Punnadhammo,

It is the first time I read, and comment on your blog. The view you are expressing would have been the easiest choice for Ajahn Brahm. The question is why has he not taken that option? First of all, it is a kind of self-sacrifice for a higher cause, because no one would be able to say that the Buddha Sasana is not better off with bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. Knowing that there would be controversy and criticism but being able to rise above it all. That is not what the majority of people prefer to do. It requires a lot of courage and determination. I admire him for that. Second, by not requesting to be excluded from the WPP Sangha prior to the ordination of the bhikkhunis, Ajahn Brahm in fact acted with compassion giving the opportunity for the bhikkhus of the WPP Sangha to reconsider their position and abandon the chauvinistic and harmful views they are holding. Unfortunately they were too narrow minded to grasp that.


LV said...

"Second, by not requesting to be excluded from the WPP Sangha prior to the ordination of the bhikkhunis, Ajahn Brahm in fact acted with compassion giving the opportunity for the bhikkhus of the WPP Sangha to reconsider their position and abandon the chauvinistic and harmful views they are holding. Unfortunately they were too narrow minded to grasp that. "

Umm...I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but the Forest Tradition is actually in dire straights in Thailand and they have to try and engage in skillful diplomacy with the rest of the Thai Sangha. Ven. Brahmavamso acted rashly without considering the larger issues. The issue is more complex than most people reading about this issue can imagine:

You have to know how to pick your battles like Ajahn Chah:

Also, it's nice to be idealistic, but practical issues of practicing and living together are inevitably going to come up and I don't think Brahm and Sujato have fully thought about the difficulties here:

"I am not qualified to be a spokesman for the English Sangha, and my information is also just second-hand, so I would wait for the relevant document to be made public first of all.
But one thing should be borne in mind by those who write about the situation in England: Ajahn Sumedho did something quite revolutionary when he ordained the first Siladhara (brown) nuns about 25 years ago. From what I heard from him, he tried to ask the senior Thai monks for their opinion first but never got a clear Yes/No answer from them (very much Thai style). So he just took it as a hint that he could go ahead with it if things were kept under control and there were no major issues arising from that. Remember, at that time this was probably regarded as being very radical, similar to Ajahn Brahm ordaining bhikkhunis now. Ajahn Sumedho also said that he can be inspired by great ideals and wants to do what it noble and right. Since then, he has lived with nuns pretty much all the time in England and that relationship has not been easy to say the least. There were many tensions and problems (I will omit the details here) for which not just the monks are to blame, so there is some sense of frustration. It is in this light that the above mentioned "5 points" have to be seen, there is a lot of history behind them, which the Australian monks never experienced first-hand."

Ajahn Punnadhammo said...

Re: Eh's Comment

As I said in a post, I am in substantial agreement with your sympathies. I would like to comment here briefly on the incident in Singapore.

I don't know about the message sent to the Buddhist Fellowship. If it was a simple statement informing them that Ajahn Brahm was no longer a Wat Pah Pong monk, then it probably wasn't out of line. I would have to see the exact wording to comment.

However, the message sent to the Thai Embassy is a different issue. Wat Pah Pong would have been negligent NOT to have sent it. For Thai Embassy staff to have attended the event might have caused some embarassment, being interpreted in some quarters as diplomatic interference in an internal sangha dispute.

Ajahn Brahmali said...

Dear Ajahn Punnadhammo,

I have just read your explanation of your previous blog entry on the bhikkhuni ordination in Perth. While I recognize the danger of these sorts of discussions going on endlessly, I feel a response to your latest post may be useful.

At the outset, I have to confess that I have never lived in Thailand, either as a monk or a lay person, and my understanding of the dynamics within the Wat Pah Pong group is therefore mostly second hand. Nevertheless, as a bhikkhu who has lived in WPP branch monasteries for almost 17 years, I feel I have a reasonable grasp of the relevant issues.

You mention the privileges and responsibilities of membership of the WPP group. I am going to make the case that either of these is hard to pin down and that given the uncertainties involved it is not reasonable to claim that we have not fulfilled our responsibilities.

First the privileges. It is not clear to me exactly what you are referring to here, but perhaps you mean the peer support that comes from belonging to such a group. Whether in fact one sees belonging to the WPP group as supportive or not, will depend on ones attitude to Dhamma and Vinaya and ones views on the necessity of traditional Buddhism adapting to Western culture. If, for example, the WPP group hinders reasonable changes that seem required due to the demands and expectations of Western societies, then the privileges of group support lose much of their lustre. There may come a point when the privileges bear no relationship to the responsibilities one is asked to shoulder.

So what exactly are the responsibilities of a monk in the WPP group? You mention that one should do ones best to follow the rules of the group. This sounds good on paper but the reality is quite complex, as realities tend to be. There are numerous rules laid down by the WPP group which are simply not kept. Some of these rules are trivial, such as the one forbidding the eating of cheese after midday; others are more substantial, such as the one forbidding the use of mobile phones. The point I am making is not that the WPP system is rotten, but simply that ‘rule’ in the Thai system has a very different meaning from how we regard rules in the West. The purpose of a ‘rule’ in the Thai WPP Sangha is to offer a means of enforcement if things get out of hand; it is rarely absolute.

Then there are the exemptions to these rules enjoyed by most Western WWP group monasteries. One of the really substantial exemptions is the tacit allowance for Ajahn Sumedho to ordain siladharas. This is a highly significant exemption, since ordaining samaneris (if the siladharas are to be classified according to traditional Buddhist categories, then this would seem to be the closest category) is explicitly forbidden by Thai Sangha Law (see the extract from Thai Sangha Law at Again, I am not criticizing anyone for ordaining siladharas, quite the contrary, but simply pointing out that Thai rules and regulations are very flexible. The Thais view such things very differently from how we regard them in the West.

(continued in the next entry)

Ajahn Brahmali said...

So what about the Perth bhikkhuni ordination? As with samaneris, Thai Sangha Law prohibits a monk from acting as preceptor for bhikkhunis. But Ajahn Brahm did not act as preceptor for the bhikkhunis ordained in Perth, Ayya Tathaloka did. Contrary to what many seem to think, it is doubtful whether Ajahn Brahm has breached any Thai laws or regulations.

As for the WPP regulations, the only significant rule regarding bhikkhunis seems to be one agreed at the meeting in June 2007. According to the minutes of that meeting WPP “does not agree” with bhikkhuni ordination. This is a much weaker statement than the outright bans on other activities, such as those mentioned above. And, as I have pointed out, even outright bans are often ignored. So, did we really break any rules by ordaining bhikkhunis? If we did, what exactly is the difference between breaking this rule and breaking the numerous other rules that are being broken all the time? Viewed from Perth it was not at all clear that we were doing anything utterly unacceptable when we went ahead with bhikkhuni ordination. Indeed, that is also why we did not expect to get expelled over it. In sum, the privileges and responsibilities that go with membership of the WPP group are grey areas, to say the least.

Then, bhante, you mention the importance of harmony. We need to be clear, however, what sort of harmony is actually worthwhile and in line with the Dhamma. Are we well-served by a superficial sort of harmony, where all real disagreements are swept under the carpet and then left to fester and grow until they return with a vengeance in the future? I believe we need a greater awareness that such harmony can be wrong if it stops us from resolving issues in line with Dhamma and Vinaya. I also do not think the Thai idea of harmony, where differences tend to be papered over, is appropriate in a Western setting. In my opinion, this difference between Thai and Western culture needs to be reflected in how we run our monasteries.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, if indeed we have put other members of the WPP group in a difficult position by ordaining bhikkhunis in Perth, then I am sorry. However, at the time of the ordination it was far from clear to us that this would be the case. We thought, and this still seems true, that the Thai WPP monasteries would hardly be affected by our action. As for the other WPP monasteries in the West, very little information had been forthcoming about their internal deliberations on the issue of female ordination. We had little reason to believe that ordaining bhikkhunis in Perth would cause great problems for these monasteries.

To summarize, since we did not breach any clear WPP rules or guidelines, I do not believe we were disrespectful to the WPP group of monasteries. From our point of view, we were simply responding to the expectations of the Buddhists of Australia. Would it be right to disregard our responsibility to the people that support us, and instead try to follow a vague and uncertain guideline coming out of WPP? For me it was quite obvious which responsibility was primary. In the choice between consultation with the WPP group and bhikkhuni ordination, we had to choose the latter. If we could have done both, we should and would; but in my estimation it was one or the other. Since bhikkhuni ordination seemed essential for the thriving and growth of Buddhism in the West, that was our choice.

Ajahn Brahmali

LV said...

Ajahn Brahmali,

With all due respect, as Ajahn Chandako pointed out, people could see this coming a mile away. It might be different if these women didn't have plenty of options elsewhere in the Theravada and/or Mahayana world. You claim that you didn't think it would be a big deal and at the same time felt the need to be secretive about it; you can't have it both ways.

There was absolutely no reason to go through with it given that the WAM is coming up and bhikkhuni ordination was on the agenda. If WPP still disagreed with bhikkhuni ordination at the WAM, then Ajahn Brahm could've parted ways respectfully and skillfully. It's easy to make personal attacks on monks like Ajahn Liem, but the fact is that those monks have to run their monasteries on Thai soil and they have some sticky political issues to navigate. I have no idea whether Ajahn Brahm is responsible for this, but setting yourself up as a martyr is simply ridiculous given that this whole incident was unnecessary:

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