Letter from a samaneri in Thailand
The following text comes from a letter written by a samaneri in Thailand to Ajahn Brahm and the Bodhinyana community. She has granted permission to have an edited version posted on this blog.
Dear Ajahn Brahm,
I’m really sorry to hear about all the fall out that has come in the wake of the bhikkhuni ordinations and the challenges directed at you personally and at the Bodhinyana community. Although I bet you are perfectly fine and equanimous in the face of all of this, I just wanted to write to express my moral support and gratitude.
Given the limited (and glacial-speed) internet access at our monastery, I came to learn of the news a bit belatedly and to be honest was surprised the ordinations happened so soon. Although I have since tried to read up on it, I haven’t been able to keep up with all the developments and the different perspectives on them all that closely. So I must say I don’t really understand all the whys and hows of the situation.
But whether I understand them or not, I trust that you had your good reasons for taking the course of action you did, reasons borne of compassion and wisdom.
It’s rare to find a monk who will care deeply enough about women’s opportunities for spiritual practice to actually do something about it. It’s rarer to find a monk who will do something major – putting in hard work and taking a stand despite the negative repercussions that could follow. A heartfelt thank you to you, the Bodhinyana monks, and all others who have contributed, for being among this rare lot.
While the success and longevity of a revived bhikkhuni sangha ultimately rests on the shoulders of the women themselves – on their commitment to studying the Dhamma-Vinaya and practicing it purely, living a life dedicated to the cultivation of virtue, mental discipline, and wisdom – the support of bhikkhus is also essential, and greatly appreciated.
Actually, the debt we owe to bhikkhus runs wider and deeper than that. The truth is, it is the example of well-practicing bhikkhus, whatever their views on bhikkhuni ordination may be, that inspires women to think of devoting their lives to the dhamma and ordaining in the first place. My bhikkhuni Ajahn here, for example, says that reading about Ajahn Mun’s life, way of practice, and teachings in the classic book Patipada was hugely motivating. It made her want to follow his example of going forth to live and practice as the Buddha did. There are also many living bhikkhus whom we are fortunate to have as role models. When women like myself look up at their bhikkhu teachers and see the fruits of their years in the robes – how beautifully, and far, they have developed on the Path – and also hear them talk about how much they love and value being a monk, we cannot help but want to follow in their footsteps. The problem is, once that aspiration is sparked, we find that the way they took is not open to us. We realize we can only “follow their footsteps” at the level of metaphor, or at best strike out into improvised, and ultimately inadequate, approximations of the ordination form the Buddha had designed for us.
Inevitably, such a situation proves unsustainable. But nothing ever gets changed unless some brave people go first. Despite the current maelstrom surrounding the Perth ordinations, and all the regrettable hurt feelings of various parties involved, I believe in the long-term so much good will come of what has happened. Actually, I think so much good already has. If the bhikkhuni issue wasn’t on many people’s minds in Thailand (and other parts of the world) before, well, it certainly is now. This may not have been the gentlest of awakenings, but at the end of the day awareness is awareness. At least the issue is now being openly discussed. That’s the crucial first step towards bringing about wider change.
When that wider change comes to fruition, and bhikkhuni sanghas are well-established in different countries, I truly believe it will be so wonderful. My conviction of this only gets firmer and firmer. Even in a mere six months of being a samaneri, I have seen so many reasons why re-establishing the bhikkhuni sangha is so important – so many ways the bhikkhuni sangha can contribute, and is contributing, to Buddhism and society. Some of these ideas I had already registered at an intellectual level beforehand. But in witnessing a real live bhikkhuni sangha in action and personally experiencing ordination, all these purported reasons are coming to life more vividly, and are proving to ring so true.
And I’m finding they’re just the tip of the iceberg. More and more reasons keep coming to light, many of which most people (even card-carrying bhikkhuni supporters like me) probably couldn’t even imagine unless they actually experience having real bhikkhunis around. The list just keeps growing; I’m losing count.
For me personally, being able to ordain as a samaneri has been such a precious opportunity. Now I get it, why this is called the ‘holy life’. Having the chance to renounce and live immersed in the dhamma has made it so clear – there is absolutely no comparison to practicing as a layperson. This is way, way better. Laypeople who say otherwise need to give it a go. (And monks who say otherwise, at least to women, ought to stop confusing them.) The benefit of a conducive environment, kalyanamittas, and the protection of higher sila – all this sounds like I am basically regurgitating what you said in that interview you gave about bhikkhunis, but now I can understand it at a different level and actually testify to the world of difference it makes in dhamma practice.
But it is more than just the chance to renounce. The form of renunciation does matter. It does to me, and it does to so many women I have encountered, whether they are ordained yet or not. I cannot put into words how deeply it moves me to be ordained into the original monastic vehicle given to us by the Buddha himself. It means so much to feel that I am truly a daughter of the Buddha. That I have a rightful place in the ordained half of the fourfold assembly he set up. That I am an authentic part of the Sasana with a designated duty in helping to carry on his dispensation. Even as a mere seedling of a real bhikkhuni, I feel it this powerfully – I can barely imagine the joy a fully-ordained bhikkhuni must feel.
It has also been so beautiful to see the complete fourfold Buddhist society reassembled in the Theravada tradition. In the past months, I have experienced several occasions where representatives of all four pillars have convened at one place at one time, and it has been a wondrous thing to behold and participate in. There is such a feeling of fullness and completion, of mutual support and goodwill, of dynamism and strength. This is how Buddhist society was meant to be. This is Buddhist society at its best.
One of the most significant, and touching, consequences of having the fourth pillar present is the impact it is having on girls and women, whose needs can now be better served. That starts with enabling them even just to discover what those needs may actually include – things that they had previously been missing and hadn’t even realized they had been missing. And then, providing channels for those needs to be expressed, and ways for them to be met.
In the time I have been here, there has been an unending stream of women, including long-standing maechees, either coming to the monastery, writing, or phoning who say they are interested in ordaining. Many others may not have thought of ordaining before, but become interested in it after having contact with the nuns here.
For those who have ordained, taking the higher precepts brings many concrete benefits. In addition to empowering personal dhamma practice, another very important, but often overlooked, advantage of the samaneri-bhikkhuni form is that it provides a highly effective system of rules and principles for governing the monastic community. My bhikkhuni Ajahn recalls that when this monastery was still a maechee center, community management was difficult as they did not have any clear guidelines. However, once they took higher ordination they were able to institute the set of rules mandated by the Buddha himself, reflecting his wisdom and evoking his authority. They have found these to be a much more solid and efficacious basis on which to run the community, producing more harmonious relations and better ways of resolving problems than they had experienced before. Once women have the benefit of living in a peaceable and orderly community, they will be better supported in their monastic vocation.
Yet it’s not just women interested in ordaining who are benefiting from the bhikkhuni sangha. Too often the discussion is framed only in these very narrow terms, which leads people to argue that offering females a decent monastic form and training similar to bhikkhunis without actually being bhikkhunis would be enough. But they’re really missing the bigger picture, the bigger point of it all. A hugely important benefit of having well-practicing bhikkhunis is that they can enhance the spreading of dhamma, especially to girls and women. They can draw more girls and women to become interested in the dhamma, and can convey that dhamma in ways that touch girls and women at a deeper level. Partly, it’s because as females they ‘speak the same language.’ Also, because women can interact more intimately with nuns, they can be exposed to dhamma teachings through informal interactions or observing daily life situations, which I myself have found often leaves a stronger, more visceral impression than what is received from formal dhamma talks.
Even more elemental than that, I feel there is just something so profoundly affirming about learning dhamma from someone who looks like you, who you can see yourself in – it seeds you with stronger faith in your own spiritual capacity. It’s true that women are told (often as a consolation for not being able to ordain) that the Buddha taught that men and women have equal potential to be enlightened. And we believe it. Or think we believe it. I certainly thought I did. But it was only after I met and interacted with inspiring nuns for the first time (just a few years ago, and I’m already in my thirties!) that something inside me truly clicked: “Hey! I really can do this!” My “this” was even quite modest – I just meant progressing in the dhamma, let alone the big Enlightenment. Feeling that jolt made me realize how tenuous and shallow my faith in my spiritual potential actually had been. It is only when women are able to see more living female role models, more commonly, that true faith in ourselves can really establish itself deep down in our hearts. Without it, we are seriously handicapped – for that faith is absolutely crucial for a person to develop, or even just to set forth, on the Path.
It’s not only me. I’ve also seen the incredible effect live bhikkhunis (and even samaneris) can have on other women. Just being able to be touched physically by the nuns is really powerful, more so than one might expect. Grown women are moved to tears by things as simple as being able to have the bhikkhunis rub their heads in blessing, the way they’ve seen men blessed by bhikkhus. Or just having a nun press them gently on the back to adjust their meditation posture can be deeply affecting. More broadly, what moves women is the feeling that they have found their refuge – women teachers they can connect with and be guided closely by and a place to practice where they can feel at home.
Aside from women already interested in ordaining, this monastery also sees a continuous flow of women and girls of all ages and backgrounds coming to visit, to help with work, or to stay and practice for a period. Even young girls and teenagers, which has been so refreshing to see. Some even opt to spend their weekends or longer school holidays here. I’ve seen many cases of young girls who are inspired to come and become more interested in the dhamma as a result of interactions with the nuns here. And sometimes the most effective bridge is not necessarily the Ajahn or senior nuns, but a junior nun closer to their age, who can be like an older sister they can relate to, look up to and be mentored by. Even little novice-novices like me have apparently inspired a kiddo or two (much to my surprise!). It’s not so easy for them to have such an experience at a bhikkhu monastery, where they would only have more limited contact with the monks, especially junior monks.
It’s true that all these benefits can be offered to some degree by other forms of nuns. But one simply can’t deny there is a more powerful effect when it comes from nuns wearing these robes, all the more so in a traditionally Buddhist country where the saffron robes are steeped with so much meaning and elicit so much respect. So many women and girls have said they were so happy to see “phra poo ying” (female monks) for the first time, many being moved to tears. Many men, including monks, and boys have expressed similar sentiments as well (although maybe not the tears part).
Indeed, what has been revelatory to me is the way it’s not just girls and women, but also boys and men who have really found something valuable in the bhikkhuni sangha. Some of the monastery’s most faithful and active supporters are actually men. Even men who at first objected to having to bow to a woman are happy to do it now, because they have gained a lot of benefit from the dhamma taught and lived by the nuns here.
Granted, this bhikkhuni-samaneri community in Northern Thailand is still relatively new, so I don’t mean to overstate things too prematurely. Of course there is still much to be figured out and developed in converting from a maechee to a bhikkhuni monastery, but I think what they have achieved and the contributions they have been made so far bode well.
This has really become a much longer letter than what I started out intending to write, but I just wanted to share with you what is happening here as a ‘case study’ of a bhikkhuni-samaneri community that offers living proof of how much good has come from re-establishing bhikkhunis, and how much it has meant to people. It’s so important, your work in helping to support the bhikkhuni revival. What you are doing and saying has a far wider impact than Perth or Australia, giving encouragement and uplift to people all over the world. I hope you all know how much it is appreciated by so many. (And will be appreciated by more before too long, even if they don’t realize it yet!)
With respect and best wishes for the new year,
A Samaneri in Thailand