Can a nun manage a temple?

I’ve reposted the following article here, originally submitted by Visakha, for more prominence.

From Buddhist Channel —

When Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun, vice-rector for public relations at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU), said, “During the Buddha’s era, there weren’t any nuns. Now things have changed, and now they can stay on temple compounds.” — he was referring to mae chis, of course.

Gender and religion: Where nuns fear to tread
The Bangkok Post, March 6, 2011

A mae chi’s takeover of a Thai Buddhist temple in India has brought the management of the facilities overseas and the role of female clergy to the fore

Bangkok, Thailand — The controversy over a Thai Buddhist nun successfully petitioning an Indian court to gain control of a temple has raised broader questions surrounding the administration of temples overseas. It has also highlighted the ambiguous role nuns, or mae chi, face within the structure of Buddhism in Thailand.

A court in India’s Bihar state recently ruled in favour of Mae Chi Ahree Pongsai, a nun in her seventies, who lodged a complaint requesting that she be allowed to replace Phra Khru Pariyat Thammawithet as head of the Thai Nalanda temple, 90km from the state capital of Patna. Mai Chi Ahree reportedly claimed that the former abbot, Phra Maha Tharntong, who died in 2007, had written in his will that if she came into conflict with his successor, she should seek assistance from India’s courts to take over.

The news of Mae Chi Ahree’s court success, made public following a visit to India by Culture Minister Nipit Intrasombat late last month, caused an uproar in Thai Buddhist circles.

Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun, vice-rector for public relations at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU), said that as the temple was in India, the court’s ruling would have to stand, but the decision flew in the face of Thai-Buddhist tradition.

Essential Buddhism scripts and principles clearly outline the power structure within a temple and the separation of roles between mai chi and monks, he said. ”Mae chi are barred from managing temples. Only monks, rising to the position of abbot, can manage them,” he said. ”During the Buddha’s era, there weren’t any nuns. Now things have changed, and now they can stay on temple compounds.

”But we have never had a nun run a temple before. What will society think about this?”

Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun said that when monks go to foreign countries, they might request that nuns from their temple in Thailand accompany them, but their role is facilitative _ assisting in religious studies and helping to manage food and accommodation for visitors.

The administration of the temple is the sole domain of monks, he said.

NUNS IN THAILAND: BETWEEN TWO REALMS

Mae chi occupy an ambiguous place in Thai society. The official council of ordained clergy in Thailand, the Sangha Supreme Council, does not recognise mae chi as full members. They are not officially allowed to interpret or teach the dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha), or perform religious rituals.

The Interior Ministry, however, does regard them as clergy, meaning they are unable to vote, while the Transport Ministry treats them as lay people, denying them rights accorded to monks, such as free transport services.

In the past, efforts have been made to clarify the status of mae chi, such as in 1991, when the Institute for Thai Nuns pushed parliament to consider a ”Nun Act”, which would outline basic regulations for nuns.

According to a September, 2002, article from Inter Press Service, the Religious Affairs Department’s response was unambiguous: ”It is impossible. A nun has never existed in a Thai Buddhist decree.”

Sri Lanka, like Thailand, follows Theravada Buddhism, however it permits women to be ordained as monks. A controversy also challenging traditional power structures within Thai Buddhism erupted in 2001 when a Thai female Buddhist scholar, Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, was ordained in Sri Lanka, and shortly thereafter, another Thai woman, Samaneri Dhammarakhita was ordained by a Sri Lankan preceptor on Thai soil, marking the first time a woman had been ordained in the country.

But Mae Chi Ananta Nakboon of the Mae Chi foundation [Institute of Thai Mae Chi???Thai Nun’s Institute???Buddhasavika Foundation???]strongly disagreed with Mae Chi Ahree’s actions.

”What was she thinking when she went to court to get the rights to manage the temple?” she said. ”Mae chi are under the support and teaching of the monks. We have no right to challenge their authority in any case,” said Mae Chi Ananta. ”In the temple, the teaching of the monks receives the highest respect from the people. The mae chi do not earn the same respect. How can they then manage temples successfully?”

She said mae chi can establish meditation centres and foundations and administrate them, ”but definitely not temples”.

THAI TEMPLES IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES

Further complicating matters in Mae Chi Ahree’s case is the way in which Thai temples abroad are administered. Temples here are established as juristic entities under the Ecclesiastical Law (1962, and 1992). The temple is considered religious property that cannot be transferred to any person and comes under the authority of the Sangha Supreme Council. Overseas temples, such as the Thai Nalanda temple, are not beholden to the Ecclesiastical Law or the Sangha Supreme Council.

There are currently over 300 Thai Buddhist temples around the world, with some 1,200 monks. Thai communities abroad establish the temple, putting administrative power in the hands of laypeople.

”Most overseas temples are established as non-profit organisations or under a foundation with or without Thai Buddhist monks at the beginning,” said Amnaj Buasiri, director of the secretariat of the Sangha Supreme Council.

That difference has led to conflicts arising between monks and foundations’ administrative teams, he said.

In some instances, committees overseeing temple affairs have fired monks, who have then complained to Thailand’s Office of National Buddhism.

”The office has suggested that Thai monks should be named to chair foundations overseeing temple affairs, so that they can better deal with conflicts when they occur,” said Mr Amnaj.

Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun said that Thai monks going abroad must be familiar with the laws and regulations in their destination countries to avoid conflict. He said a better balance needs to be struck in the way overseas temples are administered _ a shift from the current situation that sees the foundation in charge, and the monks mere residents on temple grounds.

”It is very important for the abbot, the monks and the foundation committee to have set rules and an agreement on how to manage the temple and the duties of different parties.”

Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun proposed that religious attaches be dispatched abroad to deal with conflicts such as those in Mai Chi Ahree’s case, which he said will only increase as overseas Thai communities expand.

These attaches would cooperate with temples in providing Buddhist teachings and also help resolve disputes between monks and temple committees or wider disagreements between the temples and surrounding communities.

Mr Amnaj argued that the Thai government should take over Thai Buddhist temples abroad.

Mr Amnaj strongly believed that a concrete way to solve the management problem of Thai Buddhist temples in foreign countries is to transfer the temples to the Thai government. He cited Wat Buddhapadipa in London and Wat Sanghapadipa in Wales as examples of where this model has been effective.

”The temples transferred the land and property rights of the temple compound to the Thai government, and the Thai embassy in the UK works with them to help look after the property as a national asset interest in a foreign country,” he said.

This would prevent disputes over the transfer of management rights, such as what happened at the Nalanda Temple and give Thai embassies the authority to step in should problems arise.

He said the proposal has been discussed among relevant authorities but without any resolution. ”Many factors, including different countries’ laws and regulations, must be studied in detail,” he said.

Mr Amnaj said the main point is that Buddhist temples are religious property and are meant to be a source of Buddhist teachings. They do not belong to any individual or group, even those who have established and supported them.

In the case of Mae Chi Ahree, Mr Amnaj, who returned from India said this week, said there had been no progress made in talks with her.

She refused to meet with government representatives, he said, choosing instead to speak through a loudspeaker and insisting she still had the right to manage the temple.

Mr Amnaj said that Phra Khru Pariyat and eight other monks continued their duties at the temple, and that the facility had thrived since Phra Khru Pariyat took over in 2007.

23 thoughts on “Can a nun manage a temple?

  1. By the way…

    It’s International Womens’ Day – 8th March.

    May all beings who have been women, all those who are women and all those who will be women…be happy and well…goodness gracious…i think that just about means everybody everywhere!! Well, what do you know! I suppose that means that improving things for women means improving things for everyone! Goodness me, what a radical concept!!

    Rock on ladies and ladies-to-be!!

    And for those of us who are Buddhist/Spiritually inclined…May we have full opportunity to use all that makes us women for the benefit of our Quest for Truth and Enlightenment and Liberation; ultimately may this be of benefit to all beings everywhere.

    Much Metta.

  2. This article highlights so many different issues…so many tangled threads…

    But just to focus on one for the moment… I have rather a lot of questions…

    First though, I want to express my gratitude and respect towards all those precious things that have come out of Thailand. Including Thai friends, Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Chah and all the Ajahn Chah books etc and other wonderful things too…

    Now for the questions…

    Is the OFFICIAL position of Thai Buddhism going to be that spreading the Dhamma in other lands is equal to owning and controlling organisations in other lands?

    Does this mean that officially Thai Buddhism thinks that Thai Buddhism Equals Buddhism?

    And does this mean that officially Thai Buddhism doesn’t trust human beings in other lands to make their own decisions about organisations in these lands? Does this mean then that the Buddha-Dhamma is unreliable in it’s ability to transform individuals into wise kind beings, regardless of them not being from Thailand and that the 8 fold path only works if it has been brought over from Thailand? Sorry…did I misunderstand the Buddha?

    Also does this mean that officially Thai Buddhism only wants to spread the Dhamma in so far as it is useful to those in Thailand who wish to have some where different and interesting to travel to?

    Or does it mean that officially Thai Buddhism sees its’ role in spreading the Dhamma as being only limited to those who approve of Thai Buddhism only or to expatriate Thais who may not necessarily be strictly practising Buddhists?

    Furthermore, to what extent are western monks going to hand over control to an organisations that know little about local conditions? To not, cater to local conditions, to not let people control their own destinies… This is not how Buddha-Dhamma works. I’m sure I’ve not misunderstood that part.

    All this macro and micro-managing… It’s going to give them a headache and it’s only going to take away our sense of responsibility for our own practise. And if we don’t have that, why should we bother to ever take Refuge in the Triple Gem; it doesn’t open up and guide and shelter us if we don’t first take responsibility for our own minds, actions, communities. We know our communities. They don’t!

    All you laypeople out there in the west! Go to the official gatherings of your committees and organisations. Go with others, go together with friends. Find out what changes they are making. Make yourself AWARE. Don’t sit back. Get involved. Otherwise it will be too late.

    • Kanchana,

      I think you’ve rightly highlighted the fact that this is primarily about power and property rather than gender as such.

      Such ideas are exactly in line with the policy of Wat Pa Pong: to bring overseas monasteries under their direct control, to exclude women forever and absolutely from any participation, and to be concerned solely with preserving a form of local Buddhism rather than the Dhamma-Vinaya of the Buddha.

      It’s a relief that these views do not represent all that Thai Buddhism has to offer.

    • Dear Kanchana
      you’ve clearly articulated questions that I am also wondering. I hope you don’t mind, you’ve done it so well, that I’m going to post your inquiry onto a thread with this same article on ‘Women & the FS’ group on Face Book.

      I’m wondering how far down the road are we towards the UK monasteries, under the auspices of the English Sangha Trust, being claimed by the Thai government/ sangha authorities.

      It seems as that has already happened all but in name.
      In spite of the fact that these monasteries have always had an international support and practice base.

      And I agree with Ajahn Sujato’s comment. The deeper agenda in now clear.

    • Dear Thanissara and all,

      Thanissara, that’s fine; please feel free to post the comment in question, on the ‘W & the FS’ site.

      I would perhaps extend your concerns about the UK monasteries to those in NZ and perhaps even to some in Australia.

      I think it’s really important that all supporters make themselves aware of what is happening on official levels. How are monastery/Buddhist society constitutions being changed in order to facilitate ultimate control by organisations in Thailand? Do the broad base of lay supporters know about these changes? Have they even been consulted and to what extent? They should be consulted; monasterys/temples ‘belong’ to them too. Mr Amnaj suggests they don’t belong to anyone; I suggest they belong to everyone that is involved. If after consultation, all/most parties want to hand over final control to Thailand…well…that’s up to them…as long as they know about the possible consequences of going down this road.

      But that’s the problem; a massive lack of information and a massive amount of misinformation; not to mention deliberate awkwardness/silence around these and related topics. Some folk I know visited a monastery in the southern hemisphere recently and found the lay people eager to know about Ajahn Brahm and the “excommunication”. They admired him and wanted more information but were resorting to whispering quietly and out of ear shot of the resident monks in order to get information from the newcomers.

      I suggest that monasteries/temples/Buddhist societies/Trusts belong to all those who care, to all those who care to get involved. Please, get involved! Become aware. My friends (that I referred to) had little correct information to give those lay people that were so hungry for it because while they were supporters of Ajahn Brahm, they were also ill informed about the broad picture, the differing arguments; they were also confused and unable to make informed and therefore solid decisions about what had happened and what was happening; in this case, this meant they could not pass on accurate information. When I presented them with certain facts, they were very surprised. Information changes views, channels decisions and while the lack of it causes minor blockages, the total refusal to engage with it builds major walls.

      There is a time to sit on one’s cushion and go on retreat. A time to talk about Dhamma and to listen to it. Some times are different though. These times are different and call for us to engage in a way that most ‘engaged Buddhists’ wouldn’t have imagined when the term was first coined. Certainly, do your formal practise; let it be the foundation and basis with which you engage those at the next committee/trust meetings. And let Right Speech and Right Intention come into play when you at these meetings.

      But let your information, your wider education on these issues also be the foundation from which you have conversations with monastics and those who run Trusts and Buddhist Societies. If we just have these conversations with only our current feelings/views/intuitions, we may be in a weakened position, unable to persuade or facilitate meaningful/skilful change.

      I ask everyone who cares but who would not normally go to a meeting, let alone speak at a meeting, to contribute to the decision making process. Please care enough about Buddhism to find out what is going on and ask yourself if you are happy with it and what you and others can skillfully do to make a difference.

      Metta

    • Kanchana, I think that one of the problems is that there isn’t a clear understanding by some in Thailand of how Thai rooted theravada buddhism became established in the west.

      I think that there is a difference between Thai “Dhammaduta” monks who have been posted overseas by the Thai establishment and Monks who have been invited to reside by a lat association.

      I think that for Dhammaduta monks to reside in a temple that is essentially owned by the state is not a bad idea (an extension of the embassy). These monks generally fulfil a cultural service for the Thai community and also they allow non Thais a glimpse in to Thai life. They can also offer benefit as an initial gateway to Buddhism for those who are interested (am I correct in thinking that one of Ajahn Brahm’s initial points of contact was the Thai temple in London).

      I don’t think that the Ajahn Chah branch monasteries in the UK are ever going to come under the control of the Thai government and if at present the monasteries do follow the rule of the Maha Thera Samakom that is at the choice of those monasteries.

      I’m not sure how the ownership of monasteries was organized in ancient India, maybe Bhante Sujato could help us with this, but I would think that the ideal way would be that the land be held in trust by a lay organization.

    • Peter

      I think you’ve highlighted a significant difference here.

      I hope Mr Amnaj was referring only to those “Dhammaduta” monks who have been posted by the Thai establishment.

      However, as you say, ” if at present the monasteries [in the UK] do follow the rule of the Maha Thera Samakom…[it]…is at the choice of those monasteries”. One of my concerns is that they will choose to bring themselves under the same sort of control that the ‘Dhammaduta’ monks may be under.

      Metta

    • I think that that is unlikely but you never know :).

      Ideally one would hope that if monks/nuns, as mendicants, behaved in a way that was not in line with the wishes of a local lay community they would have to move on. In this age things are a little more complicated.

    • According to the ruling made by Wat Pa pong on bhikkhunis, all WPP monastics (which means bhikkhus, samaneras, male anagaraka, and maechi – siladhara are not considered as monastics by WPP) must follow all the rulings of the Mahatherasamakhom, whether in or out of Thailand. the opaque nature of the tradition means that virtually no-one actually knows what the Mahatherasamakhom has actually made rulings on – try asking some of your local monks! I can guarantee that none of them will give you a clear explanation of exactly what rulings the mahatherasamakhom has made, or even how one can find out what these may be.,

    • Hi Peter,

      Yes, there are a variety of arrangements,and that is quite appropriate. There is no reason why the Thai government, if it so chooses, should not sponsor Thai monasteries overseas and no reason why the Thai Sangha, should it so choose, should help with running these. This sort of national monastery exists in many countries, and as you say, perform valuable work, although they tend to have a limited integration with the local culture.

      I think the problem is when monasteries or centers have been established on a private basis by the locals are then brought under the sway of a foreign institution, whether that is the central government, or a Buddhist organization. This is particularly problematic when, as is almost certain to be the case, the locals have little information or understanding of what is going on, as has been highlighted by Kanchana.

      Ownership of monasteries in ancient India was primarily by the universal Sangha, although other arrangements are found, and apparently lay ownership of monasteries was quite common. Schopen has a good article aout this.

  3. Dear Kanchana,

    After I first read this article, I wanted to say something, but then I realised that I didn’t know what to say.

    I still don’t, except that as a Thai, I feel ashamed that some Thai people claim that they are Buddhists.

    Much metta,

    • Hello Dheerayupa
      :)

      Yes…when i first read this…when Visakha posted it…i didn’t know what to say either! In fact, at times i didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at times; I found myself laughing and also near to tears as well!! Especially those last few paragraphs…laughed out loud but oh…it also made my heart ache!

      The reason I’ve kept referring to ‘official Thai Buddhism’ is because I know that Buddhism in your country is so much much much more than just this.

      Much metta back.

    • Also, the reason I’ve put my statements in question form is because i really don’t know the real answers! All I can do is guess from the contents of this article. I hope the real ‘official Thai Buddhism’ is far more clear sighted.

      Metta

    • Dear Kanchana,

      Since Mr. Amnaj Buasiri is the director of the secretariat of the Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand, he more or less represents official Thai Buddhism.

      I don’t know whether he spoke as a private individual or in his official capacity, but from the tone of the report, I would guess the latter. And that is what concerns me.

      Many of you may not remember all the characters in the 2009 Bhikkhuni ordination incident, but if my memory serves me right, Mr. Amnaj was quite a vocal and active official during that time.

      This report is like a deja vu to me. Is it about temple management or female Sangha?

      It could be about power and property as Aj. Sujato said. As the old saying goes: Power corrupts. And money is power in this modern age. Everyone knows that Thai temples have money, most of which doesn’t have an official donation record. For example, Sothorn temple in Chachoengsao has seen donations of over one million Baht a day on weekends.

      Or, it could simply be a naive blind compliance to what is written in the text (the Vinaya in the Thai version of the Tipitaka), which never said anything about eight-precept nuns and which said that Bhikkhunis with over 10 rains were needed for Bhikkhuni ordinations, etc.

      Greed, hatred and delusion are the sources of our sufferings…

  4. Buddhism seems to have thrived by adapting to the various cultures where it has found itself rather than imposing rules on them. Even the Buddha laid down rules based on the culture of the time.

    Why does Thai Buddhism break this? Why does it feel that while in Thai culture a woman cannot be a nun or in a position of authority, in another culture where Buddhism is taking root a woman cannot NOT be a nun and in a position of authority if she chooses.

  5. I’ve been interested in all the responses to this story. Why assume that Mae Chi Ahree has any right to control the temple? She’s 70 years old, and evidently prone to disputs (she is the one who sued, right?) To anyone knowing even a little about Bihar, one of the most backward states in India, it is hardly persuasive that a local course upheld her claim. Does she have any education? Why should anybody believe that the previous abbot wanted her to have any authority after he died. What are her motives? Why does she argue through a bull horn? Being a female in white garments doesn’t make her worthy and if the temple had been gifted to the Bhikkhu Sangha, doesn’t she look more like a thief?

    • Dear Visakha,

      You are quite right… You’ve pointed to another issue that this article has thrown up.

      I don’t think the discussion here so far has really looked at this. Personally I stayed clear because I felt this specific issue was far far too complicated and full of even more unknown elements. It sounds as if you know more about the situation though…

      Much metta

  6. ..maybe you should send some young under 38s monks and nuns to talk to this man especially the vayrayana ones, I mean is there somewhere in the ordaining of the under 40s that says – oh by doing this you are now superior to the rest of the population and have the right to take control of every situation, interfere and do what you want because you are special?

    It might be alright if these interfering **& did have some genuine compassion or ‘run a temple” because they care’ but are these spoilt XY whatever generation even capable of caring about anything other than there own domination over everything

    SORRY ABOUT THIS EMAIL PLEASE FEEL FREE TO DELETE THIS EMAIL – JUST VENTING

  7. Like Kanchana, I’ve refrained from commenting on the specific situation of that particular temple because I have no detailed information. Visakha’s raised questions might hit home: the nun might not be suitable, etc. I think that we should not blindly support a nun just because she is a woman. :-)

    What concerns me most is the big picture – Mr. Amnaj’s attitude, as a senior Thai official overseeing Buddhism in Thailand, about the need to control Thai monasteries in other countries.

    However, as Peter kindly pointed out about two types of Thai monasteries overseas, perhaps Mr. Amnaj would not want to control ‘ALL’ monasteries; he just wanted to have those which are to support ‘Dhammadhuta’ to be in line with the Thai Sangha law.

    Having said that, I admit I am not very optimistic because he was trying to find ways to ‘return’ Bodhinyana monastery back to Thai people after the 2009 Bhikkhuni ordinations in Perth.

  8. We’re here in Kolkata at the moment, but have no firsthand knowledge of the situation at the Nalanda temple. There are just red flags all over the article. As for “local control” in India that can be a disaster. Consider the deplorable situation of the Mahabodhi Society, established by Angarika Dhammapala to liberate the great Mahabodhi Temple in Buddhagaya. The temple is still under Hindu control and in recent years the Society was taken over by Brahmins, including the wealthy B. K. Modi, a Hindu. Although a rule was passed in 2008 that only “born-Buddhists” are eligible to serve as president Modi is still a patron. We’ve been life members for more than 30 years but we have to really work to find out what’s happening in the organization and what we see is only corruption and more corruption. That may well be true of this Nalanda temple — it may be very lucrative and hence a prize to be contested for? Where’s the Dhamma in all that?

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