How Australia’s first Theravada bhikkhuni ordination happened

22nd October 2009: remember that date. That’s when it all changed. That’s when the Sangha of Bodhinyana Monastery and Dhammasara Nun’s monastery, with the support of an international group of bhikkhunis, performed the first Theravada bhikkhuni ordination in Australia, and the first bhikkhuni ordination in the Thai Forest Tradition anywhere in the world. Here’s how it all came about.

Bhikkhuni ordination has been a live topic in international Buddhism since at least the 1970s, when Tenzin Palmo took full ordination. Actually, it was discussed long before that, as shown by the support for bhikkhuni ordination given by Jetavan Sayadaw in his paper of 1949, where he referred to contemporary discussions on the topic.

The Western, or more accurately, English-speaking bhikkhu community of Ajahn Chah started in the 1960s and gained momentum in the 1970s with the establishment of the first Western monastery in Thailand, Wat Pa Nanachat (International Forest Monastery), and in the 1980s with a number of overseas branches.

The question of how to support women’s ordination aspirations became pressing in the new environment, and the English communities responded by developing an entirely new ordination platform called the sīladharā. This is superficially similar to the canonical sāmaṇerī platform for young girls, or the modern Sinhalese dasasīlamātā, but in fact is based on a new system of rules, invented by Ajahn Sucitto in discussion with the English community in the 1980s. These new rules are structured around the canonical pāṭimokkhas for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, but introduce many changes of substance. This sīladharā platform has survived in Amaravati and Chithurst monasteries, and currently numbers around 15 nuns.

At the time, the English Ajahns new little about bhikkhuni ordination, and while it was sometimes said that the sīladharā ordination was intended to be a stepping stone to bhikkhuni ordination, there has been no signs of any actual effort to make this possible. Rather, the question of bhikkhuni ordination has been silenced every time it is raised.

Meanwhile, the community of Ajahn Jagaro and later Ajahn Brahm in Perth had the long term intention to establish a nuns’ community. This became possible in the late 1990s, when Ajahn Vāyāmā was invited to establish a community at Dhammasara. Ajahn Vāyāmā, while having a respectful connection with the English community, was not ordained there, but in Sri Lanka. I was present at some of her initial discussions with Ajahn Brahm, and she made it clear that she did not wish to follow the English model. Ajahn Brahm responded by saying that Bodhinyana was not a branch of Amaravati.

The Dhammasara community was based on the 10 precept sāmaṇerī ordination, which they supplemented with their own monastery rules.

The international community had, meanwhile, been making great strides forward in bhikkhuni ordination. The first Theravadin bhikkhunis were ordained in the 1980s, with perhaps the first being Ayyā Khemā, who was incidentally was one of Ajahn Vāyāmā’s first teachers, and was an original trustee on the land that has now become Santi Forest Monastery. Many more followed, and during the 1990s a series of well-publicized and large scale bhikkhuni ordinations took place in India and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan bhikkhuni order received a lot of opposition in the early days, but now there are several hundred bhikkhunis, and now that the hooha has blown over they just get on with their lives.

Chatsumarn Kabalsingh, a prominent Thai academic and media figure, took bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka in 2003 under the name of Dhammanandā, becoming the first of a new generation of Thai bhikkhunis. Many have followed, and there are now perhaps 20-30 bhikkhunis in Thailand.

Cambodia, too, has a small bhikkhuni community, with a group of around 20 bhikkhunis supported by one of the Sangharajas there.

Burma has the most shameful record in their oppression of bhikkhunis. Bhikkhuni Saccavadī ordained in Sri Lanka and on her return to Burma was thrown in jail, abused and traumatized, and finally forced to disrobe. I should add, though, that most of the Burmese monks who I know overseas fully support bhikkhuni ordination and have gone out of their way to express this. In addition, ‘Mahayana’ bhikkhunis are at least allowed to stay and practice in the Burmese meditation monasteries, which they are still denied in the Thai forest tradition.

While all this was going on, and progress was being made internationally in almost all Theravadin lands, the Ajahn Chah tradition did nothing. There was no dialogue, no inquiry, no talk of change.

From around 2002 or so, I started to speak to the monks about this, in person and in letters raising it as an issue that needed addressing. With the exception of Ajahn Brahm and to some extent Ajahn Sucitto, I got no response from the leadership, although many of the junior monks, and also senior monks who did not have institutional roles, were receptive. I kept talking, writing, and researching. I focussed on three issues: the purported technical Vinaya objections to bhikkhuni ordination; the psychological problems informing the debate; and the practical business of setting up a nuns’ community.

I think it was in 2006 that Ajahn Brahm told me that he was now fully convinced that bhikkhuni ordination was the way to go. He was supported by his monks, especially Ajahn Brahmali, and started to encourage Ajahn Vāyāmā to take bhikkhuni ordination. Meanwhile, Ajahn Vāyāmā and the nuns at Dhammasara had visits from several bhikkhunis, allowing them to have discussions, find commonalities, and see what a future as bhikkhunis could become.

By this time, Santi FM had become well known as a center for support of bhikkhunis internationally. We had many women candidates interested in bhikkhuni ordination, but for one reason or another none of them proceeded to full ordination. It’s not an easy thing, and it’s made so much harder by the bad vibes radiating from much of the bhikkhu Sangha. For a time we were discussing holding a joint bhikkhuni ordination with the Dhammasara nuns, perhaps in February 2010. But our potential candidate decided she was not ready for that step. In addition, the Dhammasara community wanted to do a quiet ceremony, which focussed on the real meaning of the ordination – acceptance within the Sangha – rather than making a media event out of it.

During the vassa of 2009, Ajahns Brahm and Vāyāmā had a series of discussions, where they decided they wanted to go ahead with bhikkhuni ordination. They felt their communities were ready, and did not want to have to deal with the kinds of organized opposition that would inevitably follow an announcement of the date. They invited an international group of eight bhikkhunis to participate, who were: Venerables Tathāālokā (preceptor), Sucintā & Sobhanā (reciters of the formal Act), Ātāpī, Satimā, Santinī, Silavatī, and Dhammanandā (Vietnam). Ajahn Brahm and myself were the reciters of the Act on the bhikkhus’ side. All four of the nuns from Dhammasara were to be ordained, that is, Venerables Vāyāmā, Nirodhā, Serī, and Hassapaññā.

The bhikkhunis had all received their ordination from the Theravadin tradition, and are well known as sincere practitioners. It was decided not to include any bhikkhunis from the Mahayana tradition, since some conservative Theravadins might object to this. For the same reason, the two Korean bhikkhus who were staying at Bodhinyana were respectfully asked to remain outside the sīmā boundary. This by no means implies that the presence of Mahayana Sangha would in any way affect the ordination. On the contrary, as qualified bhikkhus and bhikkhunis ordained according to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, they are clearly saṁvāsa (in communion) according to the Vinaya, and none of the monastics who took part in the ordination had any problem with including them. Nevertheless, many Theravadin Sangha perceive Mahayanists as belonging to a fundamentally different order, if not indeed a different religion, and could use their inclusion as a way of criticizing the procedure.

In the days leading up to the ordination, the Sangha at Bodhinyana was repeatedly consulted as to whether they were supportive. This happened at the uposatha meeting on the previous Sunday; I spoke with them again on the Wednesday; and Ajahn Brahm consulted them again on his return from overseas shortly before the ordination itself on Thursday. All the relevant messages from the various Ajahns that were received were printed out and made available, and the monks were encouraged to read them so they could make an informed decision. All of the monks remained unified in their support of bhikkhuni ordination. However, one monk asked to be excused from the ceremony itself as he was ordained by Ajahn Sumedho, and would have preferred if the ordination had gone ahead following the planned WAM in December.

In this time Ajahn Brahm was away, visiting his sick Mum in England, as well as taking on several teaching engagements in England, Norway, and Singapore. On the Sunday before the ordination, he visited Amaravati, where he paid respects to Ajahn Sumedho and told him they were to do bhikkhuni ordination the following Thursday. Ajahn Sumedho advised against it. Following that meeting, it seems that emails were sent to the Western Ajahns around the world, and there was an instantaneous reaction against the ordination.

Most of the Ajahns responded in a reasonable manner, expressing their respects and stating their view that it was not wise to go ahead with the ordination without consulting the wider Sangha. The majority of the messages we received expressed support for bhikkhuni ordination in principle, but not the way it was done. Ajahn Brahm responded to this immediately by pointing out that he had in fact consulted widely with his broad community, including Wat Pa Pong. I also responded with a letter detailing how discussion on bhikkhuni ordination had been comprehensively silenced in the Western Ajahn Chah Sangha.

A few responses were much more aggressive, with implied and explicit threats from Ajahns expressed in email, fax, and phone calls. I called their bluff in emails on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the threatening, aggressive messages stopped cold.

I raised a number of important issues in those emails, and since then have received not a single substantive response. The Ajahns were lightning fast to point out a couple of factual mistakes in Ajahn Brahm’s email, and to try to point out a mistake in mine (which was in fact just a misreading of my original letter). But they continue their total, blank silence in the face of the real questions: discrimination against women in the Sangha and the transformative potential of bhikkhuni ordination.

The communities in Perth were coping well with this pressure. We were all relieved to speak with Ajahn Brahm on the phone on Tuesday evening, when he said he felt happy and calm and that the opposition was pretty much what he expected. The nuns were coping well and remained firm and clear – they’re used to this kind of pressure.

There was some discussion about the exact details of how the two Sanghas should be arranged in the limited space in the Bodhinyana hall. Eventually it was decided to have the bhikkhunis on one side of the shrine, and the bhikkhus on the other side. Each Sangha was arranged in two rows, so that the candidates could come inside the Sangha. The ceremony was conducted precisely in accordance with the Pali Vinaya, with the addition at the beginning of a few ceremonial flourishes as in the Thai tradition.

The ordination ceremony began at 7.15pm, Perth time. Ayyā Tathāālokā, a respected bhikkhuni of 13 years standing, was formally appointed as the preceptor (pavattinī) by the bhikkhuni Sangha. Since no more than three should be ordained at one time, the candidates were ordained in two groups of two. The full procedure is carried out by the bhikkhuni Sangha, with the candidates requesting their preceptor, being instructed outside the Sangha and questioned inside the Sangha, before the final ‘Motion and Three Announcements’ (ñatticatutthakamma), which is the ordination proper.

When the two pairs had been ordained among the bhikkhuni Sangha, they were led in pairs to the bhikkhu Sangha. The ordination in front of the bhikkhus is much simpler, as there is no questioning of the candidates or appointment of a preceptor. The role of the bhikkhu Sangha, according to the Pali Vinaya, is simply to confirm the ordination, stamping it with their seal of approval, and acknowledging the acceptance of the candidates. Ajahn Brahm and I did the chanting, and I confess to more than one shower of rapture as the auspicious words finally came true: evam etaṁ dhārayāmi – thus I will bear it in mind. The ceremony concluded around 9.00pm.

Then the new bhikkhunis sat in the midst of the two Sanghas as we all recited the Metta Sutta in blessing. It is impossible to describe the feeling of joy and exultation that filled the hall – unforgettable. There was a light and a clarity which felt just so right under the crystal clear Perth sky that I remember so well from my childhood. Since the ordination, a flood of support and rejoicing has poured in from around the world. The future has never been brighter.

Joy & Fear

I’ve have received responses from around the world to our bhikkhuni ordination. Overwhelmingly, they express two dominant emotions: joy and fear.

Joy at the ordination, joy for the bhikkhunis, joy for the courage of Ajahn Brahm and the Sangha, joy that there is still a hope for Buddhism in our future.

And fear at what someone will say or do if they find out, fear of the consequences: ‘don’t quote me, don’t say I contacted you, don’t let word get back to the monks of what I’ve done’.

Ajahn Brahm and the Sangha who supported the bhikkhuni ordination have unleashed a wave of joy. But where does the fear come from? What are they afraid of? How can a tiny group of elite monks generate such an ocean of silence?

ARRCC with Minster for Climate Change Penny Wong

ARRCC in Canberra: faith leaders calling for climate change action

I’ve just returned from Canberra, where I made up one part of a delegation of faith leaders to present a religious case for more action against climate change.

The meeting was organized by the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, appropriately abbreviated to ARRCC. This is a body established under the Climate Institute and dedicated to mobilizing faith-based response to global warming, the major environmental threat of out time.

The delegation consisted of:

Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins – Chairman of the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, New Zealand and Asia and Senior Rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue
Sr. Geraldine Kearney – Australian Catholic Religious
Br. Ikebal Patel – President of Australian Federation of Islamic Councils
Mr. Kanti Jinna – Vice Chairman Hindu Council of Australia
Sujato Bhikkhu – Australian Sangha Association and Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils
Thea Ormerod – Chair Australian Religious Response to Climate Change
Rev. Professor James Haire AM – Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture and Director of the Public and Contextual Theology Strategic Research Centre.

Even though we had not met as a group before, we struck up an immediate rapport, as there was so much shared among our traditions as we face these challenges. Actually, quite apart from the content of the formal meetings, the new friendships we made may well end up as the most memorable and important part of the day.

There were three messages we wanted to get across:
1. That climate change was a moral issue requiring urgent and substantial action. We live in interdependence with nature, and have a strong moral responsibility to care for the environment.
2. That the government should aim for a firm target of 40% reduction of carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels by 2020.
3. That, since climate change is largely produced in the developed world, but its impacts are felt in poor countries, Australia should show world leadership in undertaking to shoulder its fair share of the costs.

We started with a statement to the press on the lawn outside Parliament, which was attended by the major TV channels. A stirring and powerful message was read by Rabbi Kamins, although its effect was diminished a little by the fact that a large excavator was working nearby. (Any rumors that the excavator was deliberately planted by the coal industry working with Cardinal Pell should be treated as strictly speculative.)

Our first meeting was with Clare Penrose of the Prime Minister’s office. As well as our main messages, Sr. Geraldine told how she had just returned from Kiribati, where she heard the President, Anote Tong, speak of the sacrifice and compassion that they were asking from the peoples of the world in response to their plight. Rev Haire had just returned from England, where the Churches had just met for a bold new initiative, Poverty Over, attended by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Rev Haire said that he was surprised at the extent to which Australia was recognized as having the capacity to offer moral leadership on world issues, and urged the government to show boldness. I mentioned that Australian monks, as well as their constituency in Australia, also have a high profile in many neighboring countries, and could help to raise awareness of climate change action on an international level.

Clare Penrose gave an articulate and detailed response on the government’s actions regarding climate change, conceding that they have not done enough to inform people of all that had been happening. She ended by inviting the group to work in partnership to accomplish the common goal of minimizing climate change for all our sakes.

We then went, in a bit of a whirlwind, to meet Greg Hunt, the Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Water. This was another brief encounter. Mr. Hunt was at pains to reassure us that he was no climate change sceptic, and had in fact done his Phd in climate change science. There was some discussion over the interpretation of some of the data on climate change.

Next meeting was with Tony Abbott, who entered saying how kind we were to meet a middle-level opposition minister like him. When someone retorted that he might be a future Prime Minister, he laughed and said, don’t tempt me with worldly power! He was the only climate change skeptic we met today. He feels that, while caution is prudent, there is no call to make claimte change the dominant environmental issue. He opined that Australia would be able to cope with a sea level rise of 1 meter (! See http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/oct/27/rising-sea-levels-australia-beaches) Needless to say, we agreed to differ, but at least we had a good laugh together.

Next we walked to the nearby Charles Sturt University for lunch and an extended conversation, looking at what we could do to most effectively respond to claimet change. There were many ideas. One was that we should harness the ‘power of the pulpit’, targeting monks, priests, imams and other faith leaders, and encouraging them to speak on climate change. ARRCC already has an action kit, but this is largely phrased from a Christian background. We agreed to restructure this information in a way that would be suitable for each tradition, and have it translated into appropriate languages, hopefully also with a short video with a priest, nun, etc. speaking to the topic. The idea is that the topic of climate change should be presented in as conservative a way as possible within the existing language and concepts of each tradition, so that it can be easily adapted and presented in a faith context. We were especially concerned about reaching non-English speaking communities.

I shouldn’t give the idea that we were all business: actually we chatted about all kinds of things and Thea did a masterful job of gently prodding us back to the topic. After this energizing session, we returned to Parliament House for a final meeting with Penny Wong, Minister for Climate Change and Water. She was, in my estimation, the most impressive of the pollies, very clear and firm. She made no bones that the 40% target we asked for was, in her view, impossible, and that the government was firmly sticking to its goal of 25%. Nevertheless, she encouraged us to keep presenting our position, and suggested that there were many other aspects of global warming that we could also help with. We said that we wanted to help the government achieve its goals, and she expressed surprise that the religions in Australia had not done more.

And i guess the answer to that one lies with us…

Pell on Religious Freedom and Human Rights

Sydney’s old faithful, Cardinal George Pell, has been weighing in on the current debate in Australia’s proposed charter of human rights. The mainstream Churches of Australia are behind him. Love of God or belief in the saving grace of Jesus could never unite them the same way that opposition to a human rights charter has.

I’d like to respond to some of Cardinal Pell’s claims in a recent opinion piece in the Australian, Oct 23 2009 (http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,26246834-32542,00.html).

You may be surprised to learn that Australia is the only Western country to have no national human rights legislation. Just as background, the proposal is similar to that in force in England, and several Australian states. The human rights charter itself does not make anything illegal. It is a checklist to ensure that all legislation in Australia conforms to the minimal ethical standards accepted by Australians and internationally. The human rights are to be adopted by default from various international conventions that Australia is signatory to, which may be adapted for the Australian context, for example by a special emphasis on indigenous people. The commision to develop the charter is headed by Jesuit priest and lawyer Frank Brennan, who was made an Australian Living National Treasure for his work on indigenous rights. It is supported by a clear majority of Australians (http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=16951) For more information, check out http://www.humanrightsconsultation.gov.au/

Cardinal Pell says that the human rights charter is a bad idea because it ‘is a threat to some freedoms’. But this is precisely the point: to curtail the freedom of people to act in ways that are harmful.

The purpose of a human rights charter is primarily to protect the vulnerable. Cardinal Pell says that ‘things in Australia are not too bad’. For rich white men like Cardinal Pell this is surely the case. But try asking some indigenous Australians, who have a life expectancy 20 years less than the average, or children asylum seekers who, under past policies, were detained indefinitely in detention centers.

At my Catholic school, one of the brothers used to have us recite: ‘Better, better, best, never let it rest, until good is better and better is best.’ Now we get ‘not too bad’ – that’s not good enough!

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Cardinal Pell’s article is that he ignores the broader human rights implications and focuses almost entirely on what he calls ‘religious freedom’. This is a serious misuse of the term.

Religious freedom means you are free to practice or believe what you want. Like all freedoms, it may only be exercised as long as it does not harm others. This right, which currently is not guaranteed at a national level in Australia, will be part of the new charter.

What Pell wants is freedom for religions to do what they want, even when this causes harm or when it contravenes the ethical standards accepted by the rest of Australian society. This is the case under current, state based, anti-discrimination legislation, which allows religious bodies to discriminate as much as they like in a whole range of areas.

I have consulted in this with the Australian Sangha Association and the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils, as well as a wide range of ordinary Buddhists, and I am yet to find a single person who endorses this situation. Australian Buddhists want to follow the same ethics as everyone else, and we will aim even higher, to exceed and excel in our ethical practices. This is part of how we perceive our role in society, to act as ethical exemplars. Religions should not be dragged kicking and screaming to accept the same standards that everyone else does.

Very many Christians, of course, do set an extraordinarily high ethical standard, which in the current case is shown by the fact that a Jesuit priest was appointed to head the human rights commission. In many areas, including work with the poor and indigenous peoples, Australian Christians do astonishing work, and we Buddhists have a long way before we can catch up.

This, however, does not give them any right to claim special exemptions. If the religions had used their privileged positions only to promote the good, they might have some credibility. But with the ongoing child abuse crisis the Catholics have lost any reasonable grounds to ask for a special exemption from the rules. We have all seen what happens when a religious body is above the law, becomes unaccountable, and places itself beyond criticism.

Buddhism in some traditional countries suffers from the same arrogance, and wants to keep up with discriminatory practices that contravene their own country’s human rights legislation. I for one would love to have the strongest possible support from the secular authorities to ensure that sexual discrimination in the Sangha is ended.

Discrimination causes harm: this is a simple, empirical fact, accepted by all good people. Westerners know this, largely because we have learned from over a thousand years of sexual discrimination and religious persecution under the Catholic Church.

In Thailand, the Christian lobbyists have tried to remove any Buddhist practices from the schools in a country that is 97% Buddhist, telling the Thais that this is the modern, secular standard.

In Australia, it’s a different story. The Roman Church wants the freedom to hire and fire on the basis of belief, to exclude women, to deny equality to same sex couples. This is not religious freedom, it is discrimination, pure and simple.

Mendicant tradition visit

We were just blessed by a visit from five senior abbots and one bhikkhuni from the Vietnamese Mendicant Tradition, together with a group of lay followers. This is a modern reform movement that aims to combine the best elements of Mahayana and Hinayana. I’ve met some of their monastics before, and have been very impressed with their openness and sincerity. They have one branch here in Sydney, the Minh Quang Meditation Center in Canley Vale The abbots who visited were:

Thich Quoc Anh (Giac Anh)
Thich Giac Diep
Thich Giac Thong
Thich Minh Chan
Thich Giac Ngan

We had a lovely conversation. The senior Venerable advised me that we in Australia should have the confidence to organize ourselves, with all the traditions together, without having to depend on the Buddhist organizations in other countries. Australia is one of the best countries for Buddhist practice, and we should develop in our own way. They were delighted when I told them that the Australian Sangha Association is already operating, and works along the lines he suggested.

He went on to say how the Mendicant Tradition aims to take the best of both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions. they were wearing Thai-style robes, they are vegetarian, they keep the 250 rules (of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya), and they keep the vassa according to the Mahayana system (which is a different time to the Theravada vassa).

The Venerable then said that, whereas in Thailand and other countries, women were not allowed to practice renunciation fully, but had to wear white robes and act as laypeople, the founder of his order determined that women, being of spiritually the same nature as men, should have the full opportunity to ordain. I told them that we had just performed Australia’s first Theravada bhikkhuni ordination in Perth, and the whole group burst into applause. I told them that Santi FM is set up especially to support ordination for both men and women. They were specially delighted to learn that the original donor of this land, Elizabeth Gorsky, was one of the four recently ordained bhikkhunis.

We went around to the meditation cave, and I told them that the cave had been largely donated by the generosity of the local Vietnamese community. The senior Venerable went on to say that meditation is the heart of Buddhist practice, and we should try to have, as well as a training place, a place for deep meditation retreat. This would give people the chance to develop deeper insight. I mentioned that it was a common practice in the Thai forest tradition to have a training monastery and then a retreat center nearby.

I mentioned that Australia is in need of more teachers, so encouraged them to send more monastics. I also let them know that the ASA and FABC have just successfully lobbied the Immigration department to relax the $45 000 income requirement for Religious Worker visas, so that more monastics can come to Australia.

They ended up by inviting me to visit them, and saying that they would like their Sangha to take the chance to come to Santi for practice. Since we have some Vietnamese Sangha here already, there would be no problem, even if they did not speak English.

I found this little visit quite extraordinary. These monks had only been in Australia for a few weeks, and most had little English. Yet they had a perfect grasp of the issues facing our Australian Sangha, and a clear-headed and positive approach to knowing what needs to be done. I hope we see more of them.

Verses in Celebration

When I returned from the bhikkhuni ordination on Friday 23 Oct, a little group gathered in Sydney at our regular Woolwich hall to celebrate. One of our regulars, Barbara, brought along a copy of ‘The First Buddhist Women; Translations & Commentary on the Therigatha’ by Susan Murcott. We invited the women present to choose some spontaneous readings to offer as a gift of Dhamma. Here are the verses (and a couple of extra things) that were read out that evening. Thanks to Gerry Moore for typing these up for us.

Patacara & Her Disciples (page 35)
Thirty Nuns Under Patacara
[Patacara:]

With pestles,
Brahmans grind corn.
Feeding wives and children,
Brahmans find riches.

“Practice the Buddha’s teaching,
you won’t regret it.
Quickly, when you have washed your feet,
sit down beside me.
Intent on peace of mind,
Practice the Buddha’s teaching.”

[Narrator]
When they heard Patacara’s teaching
they washed their feet
and sat down beside her.

Intent on peace of mind,
they practiced the Buddha’s teaching.
In the first watch of the night,
they remembered they had been born before.

In the middle watch of the night,
the eye of heaven became clear.
In the last watch of the night,
the great dark was torn apart.

(They stood up, then bowed to her feet.)

[Thirty Nuns:]
We have taken your advice
and will live honouring you
like the thirty gods honoring Indra
who never lost a battle.

We have the three knowledges.
There are no obsessions in our minds.

Chapter 3: Wanderers & Disciples

Nanduttara (page 47)

I used to worship fire,
the moon, the sun,
and the gods.

I bathed at fjords,
took many vows,
I shaved my head,
slept on the ground,
and did not eat after dark.

Other times
I loved make-up and jewelry,
baths and perfumes,
just serving my body
obsessed with sensuality.

Then faith came.
I took up the homeless life.
Seeing the body as it really is,
desires have been rooted out.

Coming to birth is ended
and my cravings as well.
Untied from all that binds
my heart is at peace.

Chapter 5: Mothers
(Page 79)

When she was brought to Krishna, the woman was insane. She had been treated in a number of asylums, and she was so broken by these experiences that she could not even walk, and had to be carried in by her husband and brother-in-law. Under ordinary circumstances, those with mental health problems were not accepted as disciples, but Krishna was moved by this poor woman’s condition and she agreed to accept her.

Krishna served her tea and taught her a simple meditation. Then she showed the woman a place to practice the instruction. After ten minutes, Krishna noticed a smile come over the woman’s face. Next, Krishna taught her the technique of walking meditation, and almost immediately the woman regained her ability to walk. Leter, when Krisna left India to teach in the United States, she parted from a sane and devoted disciple and friend.

Chapter 6: Wives
(Page 104)

Free, I am free.
I am free
by means of the three crooked things,
mortar, pestle and
my crooked husband.

I am free
from birth and death
and all that dragged me back.

Chapter 9: Friends & Sisters
(Page 139)

With good friends,
even a fool can be wise.
Keep good company
and wisdom grows.

Those who keep good company
can be freed from suffering.

Bhikkhuni Vijayā (p145)

Four or five times
I left my cell
I had no peace of mind
no control over mind.

I went to a nun
and respectfully
asked her questions.

She taught me the Dharma,
earth, water, fire and air,
the nature of perception,
the Four Noble Truths,
The faculties, the powers,
the seven qualities of enlightenment,
and the eightfold way
to the highest goal.

When I heard her words
I followed her advice.
In the first watch of the night,
I remembered I had been born before.

In the middle watch of the night,
the eye of heaven became clear.
In the last watch of the night
I tore apart
the great dark.

Then I lived
with joy and happiness
filling my whole body
and after seven days
I stretched out my feet
having torn apart
the great dark.

Chapter 11 Dialogue Poems
Punnika (page 175)

I am a water carrier.
Even in the cold
I have always gone down to the water,
frightened of punishment
or the angry words
of high-class women.

So what are you afraid of, Brahman,
that makes you go down to the water?
Your limbs shake with the bitter cold.

[Ukakasuddhika:]
But you know why, Punnika.
I am doing good to prevent evil.
Anyone young or old who has done
something bad
is freed by washing in water.

[Punnika:]
Whoever told you
you are freed from evil by washing?
The blind leading the blind!
In that case all frogs and turtles
would go to heaven,
and water snakes and crocodiles
and the rest of the water creatures,

Butchers of sheep, butchers of pigs,
fishers and trappers,
thieves, executioners,
and other wrongdoers
would be freed from their bad karma
by washing in water.

If these streams carried away all your old evil
they would carry away your virtue too.
You would be separated from both.
Don’t do that thing
the fear of which
leads you down to the water.

Stop now, Brahman,
save your skin from the cold.

[Udaksasuddhika:]
Lady,
I was on the wrong road
and you brought me back
to the great road.
I will give you the robe
I bathed in.

[Punnika:]
Keep the robe;
I don’t want it.
If you are afraid of pain,
if you don’t like it,
do nothing evil,
either openly or in secret.

For if you do,
even if you get up and run away
you won’t escape its pain.
If you are afraid of pain,
if you don’t like it,
take refuge in the Buddha,
the Dharma and the Sangha.
Train in the precepts.
This is good.

[Udakasuddhika:]
I take refuge in the Buddha,
the Dharma and the Sangha.
I train in the precepts.
This is good.

Once I was only Brahma’s kin.
I had the three knowledges
and great learning.
Now I am a true brahman.
I am washed clean.

Sittin’ on a barbed wire fence…

As the response to the Perth bhikkhuni ordination resonates around the world, sitting on the fence is becoming more and more difficult. Only a tiny percentage of the Western monks have come forward to state their position, most of them being in favor of bhikkhuni ordination in principle. A shrinking few are still officially undecided. It is a position that becomes harder to sustain as time goes on.

And there’s a big problem: as long as people are sitting on the fence, it can’t be torn down. There’s only one outcome to the ‘bhikkhuni question’, and the longer the fence-sitters stay up there, the more it will drag on. So come on down! We’re a friendly mob.

Australia

I was on a Qantas flight from Perth back to Sydney yesterday morning, after the wonderful bhikkhuni ordination at Bodhinyana. A woman sitting in a seat behind me said to the flight steward: ‘Excuse me, sir.’

He turned and said: ‘Did you just call me “sir”?’

A little surprised, she said: ‘Uhh, yes…’

He paused a moment, then smiled and said: ‘Would you mind doing it again?’

I love Australia.

Causing Trouble

There’s a lot of noise about causing dissension, separating the Sangha. It’s a regular threat that’s tossed around whenever anyone mentions bhikkhuni ordination. But for anyone who knows their Vinaya, it’s all a lot of lukewarm air.

Harmony and schism are intentional states. They arise from the intention of people, in this case monastics, to either join together or to split apart. They can never arise from a mere reaction to something one does not like.

The classic schismatic was Devadatta. He made up ‘Five Points’, deliberately basing these on what is not Dhamma and Vinaya, and with malicious intent used these as a pretext for dividing the Sangha. He led away a group of monks and they performed their own separate saṅghakamma. This is what schism means in the Vinaya.

Of course there may be, and frequently are, causes for division and tension in the Sangha which fall short of schism. This sort of thing happens all the time. The Theravada Sangha is in fact rife with sects and divisions, usually based on pure politics, or on spurious notions of ordination lineage.

When Ajahn Brahm informed Ajahn Sumedho that he was performing bhikkhuni ordination, the word quickly spread around the world. Some monks were very upset and criticized Ajahn Brahm for causing disharmony in the Sangha. They threatened to have Ajahn Brahm and his monastery expelled from Wat Pah Pong.

In this disappointing series of events, it is plain that Ajahn Brahm and the Bodhinyana Sangha have done nothing to cause disharmony. They knew, of course, that bhikkhuni ordination would be unpopular with some monks, but chose to go ahead anyway, as they believed it was the right thing to do. They did not do with the intention to cause disharmony of any sort. The fact that some monks got upset is entirely the responsibility of those monks.

No-one who took part in the ordination had anything in their hearts other than a pure wish to follow the Dhamma and Vinaya in its fullness.

Some of the threateners claimed that the Wat Pah Pong rulings of 2007 & 2009 would be interpreted as entailing instant expulsion. Now, as I have shown in my ‘Letter to Good People’, these rulings mention no punishment. So a rule that has no punitive dimension is taken to result in automatic expulsion. This has no precedent in Vinaya, or indeed in any realm of civilized discourse.

Expulsion in the Vinaya is a punishment for serious misconduct. In this case there has been no misconduct, only the carrying out of a regular saṅghakamma in accordance with the letter and the spirit. There is no reasonable grounds for threatening expulsion, or anything else. The only reasonable response is to have joy and gladness that, at last, something is being done.

Old Buildings

Theravada Buddhism is like an old building. It’s still basically sound, the arches and architecture are still magnificent, but it is run down. Bits are falling off. Paint is peeling. Termites are gobbling underneath. One whole wing has disappeared; only a few bricks, and some tattered old building plans show that a fourth wing once completed the grand design.

So we renovate. It’s a heritage item, so we must be very careful to fully understand the original intention before changing anything. But there’s a lot of new work needed, and we can’t always be exactly sure we’re getting it right.

The building has admirers. Some of them are angry. They don’t like the banging and noise that disturb the silence. They don’t know about the old wing – as far as they’re concerned, it’s always been like this. For them, any suggestion of change is an affront, a desecration of heritage.

The renovators see things just the opposite way: the renovation is their way of paying homage to the grand design, to show the world the glory of the original architect. If the work is not done soon, all will crumble into dust.