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.