Ajahn Brahm, gender equality, and the international Day of Vesak: a petition

A petition has been set up in response to the banning of Ajahn Brahm’s paper on gender equality at the International Day of Vesak in Hanoi. It’s important that we make our voices heard.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has lent his support via Facebook:

For Buddhism to flourish in the modern world Buddhists must recognize that in regard to their capacities to understand and practice the Dharma, and to contribute to the spread of Buddhism, there are no essential differences between the genders. All human beings, regardless of gender, have the potential to learn, practice, realize, and serve the Dharma.



When the young Siddhattha left home, he wandered south, leaving his ancestral home of Sakya, and eventually entering the kingdom of Magadha. Legend has it that great king, Bimbisara, saw him wandering, and, struck by his appearance, asked where he was from. When he learned that he was a son of the Sakyan clan, he gladly received him into his realm. Even Bimbisara’s son, Ajatasattu, though less honorable than his father, accepted the ancient duty of kings to provide protection and shelter for all those in his realm.

Siddhattha was lucky that he didn’t come to Australia by boat. As a homeless wanderer, displaced not by war or necessity, but by simple choice, he would be treated as an “illegal”. He would be scorned by Australians, who would regard him as a queue-jumper, a bludger, and probably a terrorist in disguise. He would be locked up in a mandatory detention center in some lost, forsaken place. There he would be stripped of basic human rights, overcrowded, with not enough water to drink, inedible, worm-infested food, inadequate medical services, no shoes, in an atmosphere of brutality and hopelessness where people could hardly sleep out of fear and discomfort. From time to time there would be violence and riots; and in that culture of despair, people would be so traumatized they would resort to cutting themselves, hunger strikes, stitching their lips together, or trying to kill or immolate themselves. This would be enabled by a culture of secrecy, with the government cutting off communications when things got bad. Popular representations would be full of hate and suspicion, while the voices of those who suffer go unheard.

Buddhism is known worldwide as a religion of compassion. And we like to think of ourselves as a compassionate people. But compassion is not just an ideal, it manifests in acts of kindness; and kindness is nothing if it does not respect first of all the powerless or less fortunate.

One of the most fundamental expressions of kindness is the duties one owes to a guest or a traveller. In Greek myth, this task is apportioned to no less a deity than Zeus himself. In the Buddhist monastic code (Vinaya), there are elaborate duties prescribed when a wandering monk arrives. One is to greet them, offer water for washing their feet, wipe down their dusty sandals; offer water and show them where the bathroom is, then ensure that they are allocated suitable lodgings. This is not some special holy duty, it is merely the everyday kindness of basic human decency.

When guests arrive on our shores, we should treat them with the same kindness and respect. They are human beings, who have come a long way from home, and are weary, fearful, and distressed. Our duty is to put them at ease, to reassure them that they are among friends and will come to no harm. They should be provided with decent lodgings, food, medicine, clothing, and appropriate legal and other support, just like any other human being. Our legal system is built on the presumption of innocence, so all those who arrive on our shores are, in the eyes of the law, innocent.

It is natural and inevitable that some people will wish to move from one place to another. It’s not a temporary aberration, it is inherent in the act of drawing a boundary around a nation. You don’t draw a boundary unless you expect someone will want to cross it. So: the manner in which you maintain your boundary defines your nation. If that is characterized by heartlessness and selfishness, as it is now, that becomes the place you live, a place that requires cruelty for its self-definition. But this is not our only choice. There are many, many different ways in which the situation can be managed, all of which are kinder, cheaper, and would make us all better citizens of the world. The fact that we have ended up with the most hardline option available is not a political necessity, but is an expression of a lack of compassion.

We don’t own this land, and have no special right to it. We are guests on this planet, borrowing for a time the air, the water, and the soil. The Buddha regarded it as a sign of the decline of society that we draw lines on the earth, saying that “this is mine”. Such conduct is nothing other than greed. In Australia in particular, we often forget that we are all descendants of illegal boat people, who arrived at this land, butchered the local people and desecrated their culture, and drew lines of the earth so we could apportion ownership, a thing unknown to the first peoples.

In ancient India, while the boundaries between nations were acknowledged, people moved freely between them, without visas, passports, or border controls. This is the traditional model of Buddhist culture.

In the colonial era, western nations developed a system of bureaucratic control over the movement of peoples. The basis of this is inequality: we have lots, and we want to stop others from getting it. The more inequality there is, the more tension there is around borders. Hence the shift in the past few decades, as the level of inequality has shot to historically unprecedented levels, towards an irrational obsession with border control. We know we have it good, and we really don’t want to share it.

From a Buddhist perspective, it is a duty of the rich to share their wealth. Traditionally, it is said that we should give a quarter of our wealth to those in need. Now, we in Australia are the rich; and though we have much, much more than ever before, we give maybe 1% or so.

Like all controversial subjects, those in power exert themselves to obfuscate the issue, so that what is, in fact, a simple ethical principle, becomes confused and intractable. Power is maintained by fear, and when there is nothing to fear, it must be manufactured. And sad to say, it seems that for many people, these efforts have been successful, as there seems little ability to clearly think about this issue at all. We are distracted by furphies, while the powerless suffer.

We hear, for example, that we can’t afford to resettle these people. This is nonsense. Australia has plenty of money, so where has it gone? Drive around the streets of Perth or Sydney, and look at the huge boats and houses, and the answer is not hard to see: the rich took it. If we follow the ancient Buddhist principle that those with much should share with those with little, then we would not have a problem.

The current situation is, moreover, probably the most wasteful and expensive solution possible. Due to the secrecy with which our government cloaks its activities—which is of course totally counter to not only the principles of modern democracy, but also the Buddha’s advice to “open up a covered thing”—it is not possible to know exactly how much it costs. However, according to Amnesty, we spend over half a million dollars per person per year. It is completely, utterly absurd.

This money is mostly paid to a corporation, Serco, which is currently under investigation for defrauding the UK government to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. A former employee alleges, among other things, that Serco hires unqualified people, who receive little or no training and are taught to run the camps like prisons, ignoring the suffering of the detainees.

Next we hear that the people coming are not real refugees, but “economic migrants”. These are people who moved from one place to another place because they want to make a better living for themselves. They are not evil, and they have committed no crime. They may be guilty of being foolish and greedy, but that is no excuse to treat them with anything but dignity and kindness.

Personally I would love to live in a world where anyone could simply move where they wanted, as we do within a country, since we all belong to this one planet and cannot claim ownership.

But we don’t live in that world. In the world we do live in, there are procedures that are accepted by the international community, and enshrined in Australian law, that decide whether a person is a “genuine refugee” and should be resettled or not.

So those who arrive should be looked after as honored guests until their status is determined. If it is found that they do not qualify for resettlement, they should be returned to their country, or other arrangements made. Of course there are practical difficulties, as there are with any situation, but this doesn’t affect our moral obligations.

There is a genuine problem with people smugglers. These people are international criminals, and we should work with the international community to disband these networks. If we were to close the absurd, horrific detention centers, we would free up billions of dollars which could be used to disrupt the people smugglers. Instead, the smugglers ply their trade and we punish their victims.

There is a further genuine problem with terrorists. In Sri Lanka, for example, after the crushing of the Tamil Tigers, it is to be expected that the Sinhalese authorities will want to pursue those guilty of terrorist acts. Of course, not all those it pursues are terrorists; but some are. No-one wants such people in its borders, and it is understandable that the Australian authorities should be careful and thorough. Nevertheless, this is only a tiny percentage of those arriving in Australia. The bulk of those fleeing the aftermath of the war are either displaced internally or are in India. The fact that some of those arriving are criminals does not justify treating all of them as criminals. Some of the people who read this blog are criminals; are we to punish everyone who reads it?

Another common furphy is that we fear the introduction of un-Australian values. This is, of course, nothing other than the fear of the Other that has demeaned Australian civic life since the days of the White Australia Policy. Fine: anyone who is settled in Australia should be taught about Australian laws and values, and as with people everywhere, they should respect that. I have spoken of the duty that a host owes to the guest; similarly, the guest owes a duty to the host. And if anyone is not abiding by those laws, they need to be dealt with. Australian law does not, and should not, tolerate uncivilized practices such as female genital mutilation, slavery, sharia law, discrimination based on gender or sexuality, or the caste system.

But there is no inherent connection between these things and people arriving by boat. However they come, whether as immigrants or refugees, people bring their own baggage. And while mostly this baggage is positive and helps enrich our culture, some of it is toxic. Equating such harmful practices with maritime arrival is nothing more than rhetorical sleight of hand.

People who are newly arrived will have certain issues, while those who have been here for a long time will have others. The real issue is how to prevent people from harming each other, while educating all people, whether newly arrived or here for a long time, to be more compassionate and wise.

Those who are so concerned with defending Australian values seem to be wilfully blind to the ways that values are actually created in societies. People don’t embrace values because they are forced to, but because they see positive models.

If people arrive as weary wanderers, and are immediately treated with heartlessness and suspicion, what will they think of Australian society? Can we expect those who have undergone such an experience to respect Australian culture and Australian Government? Australians have persistently voted in governments with relentlessly hardline policies on maritime arrivals. New arrivals know this; they feel like outsiders, and will learn to trust only slowly.

If, however, peoples’ initial encounter with Australia is an experience of kindness and friendliness; if they are treated with the openness and the fairness that we like to pride ourselves on, they will gain a natural respect for Australian culture and values. This is the starting point for real harmony in any culture.

The Buddha’s ethics is based firmly on his love and compassion, which is without exception or limit. Constantly we find the phrase sabbe satta, “all beings”. We are still catching up to this ethos. We have a long way to go before we see ourselves as first and foremost sentient beings, temporary tenants who share our beautiful planet together, and fully surmount the limitations of race, nation, caste, gender, and religion. In our time, in our Australian home, this is how we are being tested. And the test is this: as Australians and as those inspired by the Buddha’s path, to use this opportunity to grow in love; to show the world that the Buddha’s teachings are not merely nice ideals, but eminently practical tools for building a healthy and harmonious society.


Comments are temporarily disabled

Dear friends,

I have been assailed in recent months by a seemingly unstoppable cascade of abusive comments on this blog. The commenter is someone who I do not know, but has obviously had some sort of psychotic break, and I am their obsession. They have in addition been repeatedly harassing places across the country, including Bodhinyana, Santi, and I’m sure many other places.

Just today I opened up my blog to find some 230 abusive comments in the past couple of days. It’s too much, and I can’t block them as they regularly change their user name and IP address. So I have temporarily disabled all comments as best I can; although I am not quite sure how it will work, as WordPress does not provide a specific “Disable all comments” function. My apologies to all bloggists, and I will re-enable the comments as soon as the situation is sorted out.

I have been in contact with the NSW police, and we hope to get the matter resolved. Clearly this is someone who needs help, and hopefully we can do something.

Sanitsuda Ekachai: Cracking the religious wall of prejudice

Here’s a recent article, front page on today’s online Bangkok Post, by senior editor and tireless bhikkhuni advocate Sanitsuda Ekachai. She is scathing in her assessment of the recent debacle at the UNDV, and its implcations for the wider Thai Sangha. Here’s an excerpt; but you really should read the whole thing.

The ban shows how deeply Thai Buddhism is mired in the culture of patriarchy that refuses to see men and women as equal. Ask mainstream monks why women suffer, and their standard answer is because women sinned in their past lives.

“Make more merit,” is also their standard recommendation. “So you will be born men in your next lives.” The best merit, they would continue, comes from donations to monks.

It confounds me how most Thai women still take this nonsense submissively and continue to give their hard-earned money to build big temples only to be told that they cannot enter the temple’s most sacred area because women menstruate, thus are “dirty”.

It also confounds me how some pro-democracy advocates strongly defend this sexist practice on the ground that it is part of local culture, and thus must be preserved.

After the May 22 coup, the incurable optimists among us are busy preparing recommendations on all sorts of reforms to the military junta. Some advocates for Sangha reform believe the military should amend the draconian Sangha Bill to end the clergy’s feudal system which is deeply authoritarian and corrupt.

According to research by Nada Chansom of the National Institute of Development Administration, 37,075 temples nationwide receive between 100 and 120 billion baht in donation money each year. Abbots have total control of this tax-free temple money with no monitoring from the Supreme Sangha Council nor from any government agencies.

Can democratic reform occur under military dictatorship? Can women be spiritually equal under patriarchal clergy? Those who believe in change do not waste time asking those questions. They take things into their own hands. For female ordination, women simply discard resistance from Thai Theravada clergy and seek ordination elsewhere.

BD Dipananda/Raymond Lam: Banning Ajahn Brahm’s speech on nuns was a spectacular own-goal by the International Council for the Day of Vesak

All religious traditions claim to exert moral and spiritual authority. Most of the great world faiths also like to believe they are aligned with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations, the third of which is “to promote gender equality and empower women”. As Buddhists, it would therefore be a spectacular own-goal to diminish our moral authority on gender issues and make a mockery of the third MDG at an event that was supposed to show off how ethical and open-minded we are.

Yet this is precisely what last May’s Vesak Conference in Vietnam achieved by, at the last minute, hastily banning Ven. Ajahn Brahm’s (already approved) speech on bhikkhuni ordination. As a result, Theravada Buddhism’s public image and authority on gender issues has been unneccessarily weakened.

A Fishy Matter

Every year since 15 December 1999, the United Nations and the International Council for the Day of Vesak have jointly celebrated Vesak Day across the world. This year the 11th United Nations Day of Vesak was held in Vietnam. The International Association of Buddhist Universities chose Bai Dinh Temple as the venue for the Conference, which was to be called “Buddhism and the UN Millennium Development Goals”.

Ajahn Brahm’s approved paper was titled “Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Theravada Buddhism”. The theme was open, unambiguous, and hid nothing. To be fair to the organizers as well, the Conference had initially approved it. Within the paper, Ajahn Brahm addressed subjects that the organizers would have vetted, from gender inequality in Australia to the controversies within the current leadership of the Theravada. Since we trust that the committee was rigorous in approving papers, we can assume its members would also have read and approved of his essay’s conclusion:

“By restoring equity to women in the Theravada Sangha through the reinstating of the bhikkhuni ordination, we will be addressing the inferior status of women in many Theravada countries, promoting gender equity in education and, thereby, making a strong statement in support of the Third UN Millennium Development Goal.

By fixing our own house first, we have the considerable opportunity and moral authority through our books and sermons to inspire and encourage our Buddhist followers to also work towards gender equality in spheres other than religion. That will lead to a world with less violence, better health and more prosperity.”

After searching the official website of the International Association of Buddhist Universities, we found the Name and the Title list of “Panelists” for the UN Day of Vesak Conference 2014. Ven. Ajahn Brahm’s paper was listed at the top and is bizarrely still there. His selected paper was in the category of “The Millennium Development Goal 3: Promoting Gender Equality”. We were later told that the conference had to be rescheduled when Ajahn Brahm, as the first speaker, was banned.

Our reconstruction of events is as follows. Ajahn Brahm’s abstract was accepted on October 7, 2013 by the organizers through a vetting system listed on their website. The draft paper was accepted on November 17, 2013. His final copy was submitted in the middle of January this year. Dr. Dion Peoples, a member of the organizing committee, officially accepted the paper on February 11, 2014. By February 25, Ajahn Brahm had received an official invitation to speak at the conference from Ven. Thich Tanh Tu (Deputy Rector of Vietnam Buddhist University). His registration form to participate in the conference was officially accepted on March 7.

Ajahn Brahm flew to Vietnam overnight on May 7. He was then abruptly informed that his paper was banned by Ven. Thich Nhat Tu and the organizers in the Conference Hall a few minutes before the opening ceremony on May 8, just when the paper was to be delivered the next day. It is strange and unlikely that such a clumsy and abrupt ban was the work of one person. Up until the very last moment on May 8, there was clearly conflict within the International Council for the Day of Vesak.

We do not know who exactly influenced the International Council and lobbied for Ajahn Brahm’s speech to be banned. We reached out to Ven. Thich Nhat Tu, but the organizers were unavailable for comment. So we only have Ajahn Brahm’s word: “I was told by Ven. Thich Tanh Tu that the Vietnamese supported my paper, but the others led by the Thai members on the organizing committee objected. I was told two days later by the Sri Lankan monk, Ven. Dhammaratana, that the Vietnamese objected! The former statement was the most likely.” This indeed seems the most likely explanation, especially given Ajahn Brahm’s rocky history with the Thai lineage of Ajahn Chah. October 2009 was a turning point for his relationship with the Thai sangha after he was expelled for ordaining four women at his center in Bodhinyana.

While Ajahn Brahm stressed that it is not helpful to blame individuals, he also made it clear that: “The main point is that it was a United Nations sponsored conference, the theme was the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, the third of which is Gender Equality, and the organizing committee banned any discussion on gender equality in their own backyard, the sangha. That no discussion at all was allowed is the shameful point.”

Diminished Ideals

It must first be clarified that this critique is not about Ajahn Brahm. Indeed, he had this to say: “When I was informed my paper was banned, I was not angry… It was good that they banned the paper, because of that people are reading it more!” Marginalizing him has only amplified his voice. Rather, this incident exposed decisively a vocal minority of Buddhists, in this case within the Theravada tradition, which does not take the applied realization of gender equality seriously.

We asked Susan S. Lee, Founder and Vice-Chairman of Bodhinyana International Foundation (which hosted Ajahn Brahm in Hong Kong), what she thought. She had this to say:

“This Convention Authority that pre-approved Ajahn Brahm’s article for delivery should not have allowed the International Committee [or the International Council ] to intervene in the last minute. Any disagreements could have at least been discussed prior to the delivery, or if all agreed, in an open dialogue for transparencies to present the conflicts, differences of opinions, disagreements on the references and conclusions. The prejudices and narrow-mindedness of some learned monks and/or laypersons involved have confirmed to me again that the wisdom and kindness are definitely not from the knowledge of the Buddha’s Teachings but from the practices.”

In his own statement, Gerald Lee, Bodhinyana International’s Chairman, said:

“Like Ajahn Brahm, It is my deep conviction that with patience and through education, some day, women from all over the world can, and will, become fully ordained nuns in the Theravada tradition, if they so choose. In fact, it is both legal and ethical for them to do so from a historical and social perspective: some 2,600 years ago during the Buddha’s time, the Buddha Himself performed ordinations of bhikkunis, and the very first one being his stepmother Mahaprajapati Gotami. Many of these women eventually became arahants. Their remarkable stories were recorded in the Therigatha, which is classified in the Khuddaka Nikaya in the Sutta Pitaka.”

Overall, a picture of what can only be called spite is emerging from within a shadowy portion of the International Council for the Day of Vesak, a deep and unhealed disdain for everything associated with Ajahn Brahm. By caving in to a vocal circle of Theravada authorities that sees Ajahn Brahm and bhikkhuni ordination as illegitimate, the Conference’s organizers scuppered any progress on the third MDG—women’s equality—at an event expressly held to address these concerns. How are observers to take a Buddhist conference on human and women’s rights seriously if they see open conflict about a speech on women’s ordination? Has this public relations disaster not served to highlight the ethical paralysis of the Theravada sangha on gender issues and a broader responsibility of all Buddhists to regain some of the moral authority it has lost?

Ajahn Brahm: Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Theravada Buddhism

On December 1 1955, in Montgomery Alabama, an African-American woman refused to obey a bus driver’s order to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. That simple act of defiance for the cause of social justice became one of the most important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movements in the USA. That woman was Rosa Parks. The United States Congress called her “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”. December 1 is commemorated in the US states of California and Ohio as “Rosa Parks Day”.

Rosa Parks became a Buddhist before she passed away in 2005 aged 92. One can speculate that this female icon against discrimination chose Buddhism because it is well suited to advancing social justice issues.

In this paper, I will discuss how Buddhism may advance the particular social justice issue of Millennium Development Goal No. 3: Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. I will focus on the need for Theravada Buddhism’s current male leadership to clearly demonstrate its own commitment to MDG 3 through acceptance of the bhikkhuni ordination. Only then can it use its considerable influence to make our world more fair, one where people are judged on their character and not on their gender.

Gender Inequality in Australia and the Contributions of Buddhist Leaders

In a report on gender equity issued by the Council of Australian Governments on Tuesday 19 November 2013, the median salary of new female graduates in Australia was found to be 10% less than that of male graduates. Even though they were equally qualified, women received less pay than men. Thus even in a developed country such as Australia, gender inequality still persists. In less developed countries it is far worse.

My colleague, Ajahn Sujato, recently attended the 2013 Religions for Peace World Assembly in Vienna, sponsored by the king of Saudi Arabia. He reported in his blog:

One panel was devoted to the role of women in religion, and that was, predictably, powerful and moving. Rape, domestic violence, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, maternal mortality: these are all-too-painful realities for many women; and meanwhile male-dominated religious morality obsesses about correct doctrine and stopping gays. The suffering of women is rarely featured in religious discourse, and as one of the delegates said, when it is mentioned it is tepid and equivocal. Yet as those working in development know well, empowerment of women is the single most effective means of lifting countries out of poverty.

As Buddhists who espouse the ideal of unconditional loving kindness and respect, judging people on their behavior instead of their birth, we should be well positioned to show leadership on the development of gender equality in the modern world and the consequent reduction of suffering for half the world’s population. Moreover, if Buddhism is to remain relevant and grow, we must address these issues head on. But how can we speak about gender equality when some of our own Theravada Buddhist organizations are gender biased?

In Australia, the Anglican Christian Church represents 17.1% of the population (2011 National Census) and is maintaining its relevance by ordaining female bishops. In May 2008, in Perth, I was invited to attend the ordination of the world’s first female bishop in the Anglican Christian Church, Rev. Kay Goldsworthy. The media response to the recognition of women in the Anglican Church was overwhelmingly positive. Such initiatives shine a damming spotlight on other religions in Australia that still discriminate on the basis of gender. But it shone a positive light on Theravada Buddhism in Perth that has fully ordained nuns.

Unfortunately, other Theravada Buddhist temples and monasteries in Australia and in other parts of the world still adhere to excluding women from full membership of the Sangha. I will later argue that there is no legal basis in the Vinaya, the ancient Buddhist Monastic Code, to deny women full ordination. Moreover, when parts of Theravada Buddhism are generally considered to unreasonably prevent women from full membership of the Sangha, then they have no moral authority to speak on gender equality. They have lost the opportunity to speak for the empowerment of women in other parts of society and advance the Third Millennium Development Goal.

When Mahatma Gandhi was a law student in London, the landlady of his boarding house asked him to have a talk with her son. Her boy was eating too much sugar and would not listen to his mother when she told him to stop. Yet the boy had a fondness for the young Mr. Gandhi. She suggested that if Mr. Gandhi advised her son not to eat so much sugar then he might follow the good advice. A week or two went by and the landlady’s son was still eating lots of sugar. So she took Mr. Gandhi aside and asked him why he had not kept his promise to talk with her son. “But I did talk with your son” Mr. Gandhi replied, “but only this morning.” “So why did you wait so long?” “Because it was only yesterday that I gave up eating sugar”. Such was the reply of the great man.

Religious leaders, above all others, must practice what they preach to be taken seriously and for their advice to be effective.

The Power of Leading by Example

According to the latest figures from Wikipedia, there are between 506 million to 1,146 million Buddhists in our world. Even at the lower estimate that is a significant proportion of the global population. The vast majority of these look to their monks and lamas for inspiration, guidance and moral leadership. Moreover, many of these Buddhists are in undeveloped or developing countries where the empowerment of women is crucial for those countries’ economic development and social progress. In today’s highly connected world, words are not enough. Actions are demanded.

Master Cheng Yen, the female founder of the International Tzu Chi Foundation, is an example of the power of an ordained Buddhist Nun. Ordained in Taiwan in 1962, at a time when women had little influence in social policy, she is now regarded as an icon throughout her homeland as well as internationally. She has built state-of-the-art earthquake-proof hospitals in Taiwan, led the way in encouraging recycling of waste in her country, and established the largest Buddhist Relief Organization in our world. When I visited Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan in May 2013, I was shown how discarded plastic bottles were turned into blankets to be sent to natural disaster zones, such as the areas devastated by the recent Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Much of the work was done by retired men and women who gained meaning in their lives together with the considerable emotional and health benefitsthat such a social activity provides. They were enjoying their twilight years instead of wasting away at home. No monk or lama has done anything comparable.

For Buddhism to grow in our modern world, we need to do more than teach meditation, preach inspiring sermons, and make the Sutras available over the internet. We are good at studying, publishing and spreading the word of Buddhism. What we have not been very successful at is showcasing the compassion and selflessness of the Dharma by our actions. We have written many more words in our books than what few kind words we have spoken to the poor, lonely and desperate. We have built so many more temples than orphanages.

Female Leadership in Theravada Buddhist Countries.

Sri Lanka, a majority Theravada Buddhist country, can be proud of having the modern world’s first female Prime Minister, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1960. Myanmar would have had its first female head of government in 1990 when Aung San Su Kyi and her NLD party won 59% of the popular vote in the national election, but the election result was not accepted. In 2013, Thailand elected their first female Prime Minister, Yingluk Shinawatara.

This shows that Theravada Buddhist laypeople can accept women in leadership roles. Why, then, can’t the Sangha?


Theravada Buddhist monks, generally speaking, are very conservative. They often claim that they are the guardians of “Original Buddhism” from the time of the Lord Buddha Himself. They consider that one of their most important duties is to preserve these precious and authentic early teachings. In this context, what was the tradition in the time of The Lord Buddha with regard to women in the Sangha?

All monks of all traditions in all countries, and all Buddhist lay scholars as well, fully accept that there were fully ordained women, called Bhikkhuni, in the lifetime of the Buddha. Moreover, it is clearly stated in these early teachings that one of the goals of the Lord Buddha’s mission was to give the full ordination to women:

Ananda, once I was staying at Uruvela on the bank of the river Neranjara (present day Bodh Gaya) under the Goatherd’s Banyan tree, when I had just attained supreme enlightenment. And Mara the Evil One had come to me, stood to one side and said “May the Blessed One now attain final Nibbana, may the Sugata now attain final Nibbana. Now is the time for the Blessed Lord’s final Nibbana.”

At this, I said to Mara: “Evil One, I will not take final Nibbana until I have bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men and lay women followers, who are accomplished, trained, skilled, learned, knowers of the Dhamma, trained in conformity with the Dhamma, correctly trained and walking in the path of the Dhamma, who will pass on what they have gained from their Teacher, teach it, declare it, establish it, expound it, analyse it, make it clear, until they shall be able by means of the Dhamma to refute false teachings that have arisen, and teach the Dhamma of wondrous effect.

Mahaparinibbana Sutta DN16.3.34–35

Theravada Buddhists should have an advantage over other major world religions because their tradition explicitly gives such equity to women. Christianity has no tradition of gender equality in their priesthood. Nor does Islam, Judaism or the various schools of Hinduism. Buddhism stands apart and ahead of its time in granting such status to women from “when I (the Lord Buddha) had just attained supreme enlightenment” at Bodh Gaya.

Therefore, full ordination of women is part of the earliest tradition. It is also the declared wish of the Lord Buddha

Obstacles to Gender Equality in the Theravada Sangha

There are two main obstacles to the acceptance of the Bhikkhuni Ordination in Theravada Buddhism: 1) Ignorance about who makes the decisions that govern the Sangha, and 2) Ignorance of the Vinaya, the rules established by the Lord Buddha that restrict what decisions may be made.

1. Many monks in Thailand argue that a ruling from the Sangharaja of Thailand in 1928 bans the ordination of female monks:


“It is unallowable for any Bhikkhu to give the Going-Forth to Women.

Any woman who wishes to ordain as a Samaneri, in accordance with the Buddha’s allowances, has to be ordained by a fully ordained Bhikkhuni. The Buddha laid down the rule that only a Bhikkhuni over 12 vassas is eligible to be a Preceptor (pavattini).

The Buddha did not allow for a Bhikkhu to be the preceptor in this ceremony. Unfortunately, the Bhikkhuni lineage has since faded and died out. Since there is no more fully-fledged Bhikkhunis to pass on the lineage, there is henceforth no Samaneris who have obtained a proper ordination from a fully-fledged Bhikkhuni.

Therefore both the Bhikkhuni and Samaneri lineage has died out. So any Bhikkhu who gives the going forth to a woman to become a Samaneri, it can be said that the Bhikkhu is not acting in accordance with the regulations the Buddha laid down. In essence, he is following his own guidelines and diverging from the guidelines that the Buddha laid down. This is something that will jeopardize the Buddhist Religion and is not a good example for other Bhikkhus.

Therefore, all monks and novices in both Nikayas are forbidden to ordain any woman as a Bhikkhuni, Sikkhamana, or Samaneri from this day forth.”

Phra Bancha Somdet Phra Sangharacha Jiao Gromluang Jinawarn Siriwad (18 June 2471)
Official announcement from the Sangha Committee Meeting minutes, Book 16 p. 157.

As well as noting the antiquity of this ruling, it should also be pointed out that the Sangharaja of Thailand, together with the Thai Council of Elders (Mahatherasamakom), are only permitted by their legally binding constitution to rule on matters directly concerning the monks and novices of the main two Thai Buddhist sects, Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttanikaya. They are legally not empowered to rule on the affairs of other monastic groups, such as Chinese Mahayana monks in Thailand, nor on nuns. For those well meaning monks waiting for the Thai Council of Elders to decide on the legitimacy of Theravada Bhikkhunis, they will need to wait forever. The Thai Council of Elders is not legally entitled to rule on matters beyond its remit.

As the Late Somdet Phra Pootajarn, the then acting leader of the Thai Council of Elders, told me in 2009 regarding the question of Bhikkhuni ordination “Thai law does not extend beyond Thailand”. In essence, a Sangha in Thailand cannot rule on the proceedings of a Sangha in Sri Lanka, nor in Australia.

Indeed, the Buddha established that all Sanghakamma (monastic acts), such as the ordination of Bhikkhunis, are to be decided on by the local monastic community, defined as those monks or nuns within the same monastic boundary. Decisions or opinions of other monastic communities are not binding. Governance of the Sangha is devolved to each monastic community. This is the ruling of the Lord Buddha.

2. However, each monastic community is bound to act within the rules called the Vinaya. So are these rules an obstacle to Bhikkhuni Ordination?

The Thai Sangharaja’s 1928 ruling judged that a bhikkhu Sangha cannot give ordination to a bhikkhuni, because one needs other bhikkhunis to ordain a bhikkhuni. This is a moot point. In a recent publication “The Revival of the Bhikkhuni Order and the Decline of the Sasana” by the renowned scholar monk Bhikkhu Analayo (Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 20, 2013), the author argues that such an ordination is valid. In short, he argues that at first the Lord Buddha gave the bhikkhus authority to ordain bhikkhunis. Later, the Buddha gave authority for bhikkhunis to be ordained by a dual ordination ceremony; first in a Sangha of bhikkhunis and then in a Sangha of bhikkhus.

However, in contrast with the history of the bhikkhu ordination, where one finds that whenever a new ordination is allowed by the Lord Buddha then the previous method is immediately abolished, the original ordination of bhikkhunis by bhikkhus was not abolished by the Lord Buddha.

It is a general principle of Theravada Buddhism “Not to abolish what has been authorized by the Buddha” (one of the seven causes for the longevity of the Buddhist religion, Anguttara Nikaya 7.23, Digha Nikaya 16). This, then, is a strong argument for the legitimacy of ordination of bhikkhunis by bhikkhus alone.

It is generally regarded that the first bhikkhuni ordination of modern times was that which occurred in 1998 in Bodh Gaya. This was a dual ordination performed first by Chinese bhikkhunis following the “Dharmagupta” Vinaya and then by an international Theravada Sangha of bhikkhus. Was this legitimate?

There are four, and only four, ways that an ordination may be judged illegitimate:

  • 1. Simavipatti: when there is a monk or nun within the monastic boundary who should be present but is absent.
  • 2. Parisavipatti: when there is not an adequate quorum.
  • 3. Vatthuvipatti: (for ordinations) when the candidate is disqualified from ordination such as being underage.
  • 4. Kammavacavipatti: when the procedure is chanted incorrectly, e.g. an ordination ceremony being chanted without a motion and three announcements.

In regard to the Bodh Gaya ordination, there is no doubt that:

  • 1. All the monks and nuns within the monastic boundary were present,
  • 3. The candidates were well qualified, and
  • 4. The procedure was chanted correctly.

But was there a quorum? May Mahayana bhikkhunis qualify as a quorum?

There are no reasonable grounds to suspect that the Chinese Mahayana nuns who performed the Bodh Gaya ordination are not legitimate bhikkhunis. The records show that their lineage came from Sri Lanka. Their own ordination procedure does not fail for any of the four reasons given above. They perform the ceremony with all present within a boundary (which they call a “platform”). There is always a quorum. They ensure that the candidate is qualified. And the ceremony is enacted by the same motion and three announcements as in Theravada, albeit chanted in Chinese. They are bhikkhunis according to the Vinaya and so can ordain other bhikkhunis.

But what about a quorum of one sect (Mahayana) ordaining nuns of another sect (Theravada)?

Sects in Buddhism

The different sects of Theravada are called nanasamvasa in the Vinaya. They are separate communities each performing their own acts of governance (sanghakamma), even within the same monastic boundary. The Vinaya states that there are only two origins of separate communities (nanasamvasabhumi):

  1. A monk decides for himself to belong to a community separate from others, or
  2. The Sangha forces a monk out of their community by enacting the severe penalty of Ukkhepaniyakamma by a motion and three announcements.

Vinaya Mahavagga, chapter 10, verse 1.10

The second cause for a separate community is not used these days. This leaves only the first, that of personal choice. Put simply, according to Vinaya, a monk may choose to perform Sanghakamma with any group of monks he feels comfortable with. There is no legal impediment preventing a Theravada bhikkhu from performing a Sanghakamma with a Mahayana bhikksu. Indeed, it may be accurately said that there are no Theravada or Mahayana bhikkhus, there are just bhikkhus, according to the Vinaya, who happen to follow Theravada customs or Mahayana practices. Thus, a monk ordained in a Theravada ceremony may join a Mahayana monastery without needing to be re-ordained.

Thus, according to the Vinaya, Mahayana bhikkhunis may perform the first part of the ordination ceremony for a new bhikkhuni, and then she may take the second part of the dual ordination in a gathering of Theravada bhikkhus. This is what happened in Bodh Gaya. There is no reasonable argument based on the Vinaya to invalidate this. And what sect to those bhikkhunis ordained at Bodh Gaya belong to? They choose!

The Perth Bhikkhuni Ordination in 2009

Once there were Theravada bhikkhunis, it was relatively easy to arrange for the ordination of four women as bhikkhunis in Perth in October 2009. Even though it caused some trouble at the time, the bhikkhunis that were ordained are now recognized by all as bhikkhunis according to the Vinaya. As the old saying goes: “One cannot make an omelette without cracking eggs”.

The Bhikkhuni Sangha is growing. In Perth, the Dhammasara Nuns Monastery currently has 11 members of the Sangha with a waiting list of women from around the world wanting to ordain. Recently, a Thai TV channel visited Dhammasara and interviewed the bhikkhunis. In Thailand there are around 100 bhikkhunis (Murray Hunter, ANU, 2/1/2014) and in Sri Lanka around 800 bhikkhunis (The Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka, 3 March 2013). They may not be respected by all monks but they are becoming ever more respected by the lay Buddhist community, especially in Western countries. The Perth bhikkhunis are giving talks and teaching meditation. They are taking their place in the fourfold assembly of Buddhism as the Lord Buddha wanted. They are getting ample support.

The Need for the Current Leadership of Theravada to Embrace Bhikkhuni Ordination

It may be of interest to Thai monks to know that the Preceptor (pavattini) at the Perth Bhikkhuni ordination, Ayya Tathhaaloka, had visited Ajahn Maha Boowa at Wat Bahn That in Udon before the Perth Bhikkhuni ordination. Ajahn Maha Boowa invited her to stay in the female quarters overnight, and gave her ordination recognition by inviting her up onto the monks’ platform and then addressing her as a bhikkhuni, in front of the Sangha together with the assembled laity.

Many influential leaders in Thailand respect Ajahn Maha Boowa to such an extent that this incident may encourage other senior monks to accept the existence of Theravada bhikkhunis in Thailand. Such acceptance by Buddhist monk leaders will result in greater respect for the status of bhikkhunis among the lay Buddhist followers. Then those women will be empowered to lead in many other areas for the benefit and progress of their nation.

The Relevance of Bhikkhuni Ordination for the Third Millennium Development Goal

In a recently published paper by Emma Tomalin and Caroline Starkey (Sakyadhita newsletter, Winter 2012), the authors explored the role that Buddhism in Thailand and Cambodia plays in maintaining gender disparity in education and, “ultimately ask what is the relationship between the reassertion of women’s traditional ordination rights and female empowerment through education?” They noted that “Several scholars, both Thai and Western, have implicated Buddhism as one explanatory factor for the historical inequality between genders, particularly in the poorest areas.” Also that “Many advocates of the bhikkhuni ordination consider that that there is a direct relationship between the low status of women in many Buddhist traditions and the inferior status of women within Buddhist societies.

Thus, by restoring equity to women in the Theravada Sangha through the reinstating of the bhikkhuni ordination, we will be addressing the inferior status of women in many Theravada countries, promoting gender equity in education and, thereby, making a strong statement in support of the Third UN Millennium Development Goal.

By fixing our own house first, we have the considerable opportunity and moral authority through our books and sermons to inspire and encourage our Buddhist followers to also work towards gender equality in spheres other than religion. That will lead to a world with less violence, better health and more prosperity.

Ajahn Brahm, Perth, January 2014