The Problem with Nuns…

is not just a Buddhist thing. The Vatican has been enduring increasing levels of anxiety about the nuns, specifically the nuns of the US.

The leading representative body for nuns in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, despite it’s canonical status within the Church has come under repeated fire and investigation for various heretical tendencies, which you can read about in the Vatican’s statement here, and the LCWR response here. The Vatican takes this so seriously that have set up a formal investigation, and the LCWR is talking about seceding from the communion.

The parallels with the situation regarding Wat Pa Pong and nuns are quite remarkable, for all the differences in the details. Despite the misleading and sensationalist headline, this article from AlterNet does a good job of explaning the background to the dispute. The author argues that the basic issue is about power, and it’s hard to fault this. Just as WPP criticized Ajahn Brahm and others for questioning the orthodoxy, so ‘obedience’ is foremost in the lessons that the bishops would have the nuns learn.

And the basic conflict is pretty much exactly parallel. The conservative group insists on keeping the medieval power structure in place, insisting that that, and that alone, is the truth; while the progressive party—more alive to the nuances and changes of history—look for inspiration in the heart of the teacher’s message for guidance in changing times.

It’s not just the LCWR that’s proving controversial. A leading academic nun in the US, Sister Margaret Farley, has come under fire for discussing sexual ethics in ways that the Vatican declares to be “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology”. As always, it’s best to read the Vatican’s original response, which is posted here.

Sister Farley is criticized for taking liberal positions on a range of matters relating to sexuality and relationships, namely masturbation, homosexual acts, same sex marriage, and divorce.

What’s interesting (or interestingly boring, depending on your perspective) is the wording of the criticisms. The document speaks of ‘doctrinal errors’, ‘the constant teaching of the Magisterium’, ‘the objective nature of the natural moral law’, ‘errors and ambiguities’ (Oh, those ambiguities! Can’t have them… Or can we?), ‘conform to Catholic teaching’, ‘This opinion is not acceptable’, ‘Sacred Scripture… presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law…’ ‘Legal recognition of homosexual unions… would mean… the approval of deviant behavior…’.

It’s all astonishingly unreconstructed. Despite Vatican 2 and the tremendous efforts by Catholics all over the world to genuinely engage with modernity within the framework of their faith, in this document the patriarchy just slams right down, no concessions granted. Modernity is just shrugged off like an annoying mosquito.

The Vatican document cites the ‘confusion’ among laity, a similar position to that which was expressed at the same sex marriage meeting I attended in April. This was also a key point in the official Amaravati document on the Five Points that subjugate the nuns. These were intended to allay the ‘confusion’ of the lay folk, which is why they were called ‘Points of Clarification’. For these patriarchies, allaying confusion means insisting on the One and Only Truth, which always has been and always will be, and which is fully embodied in the patriarchy itself.

The original document on the five points is here, and it’s worth reading it side by side with the Vatican documents. The Vatican, being older and more confident, expresses itself directly, whereas the Amaravati document ties itself in knots trying to apologize. But the end result is the same: obey or get kicked out.

There is, of course, the difficulty that many of the propositions insisted on by the patriarchy are unethical and harmful. They stem not from any timeless well of truth, but from well-understood social and historical conditions, conditions that no longer exist—except in the minds of the patriarchs. But as long as ‘modern’ notions can be dismissed by the sheer fact of their heterodoxy, they need not be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Buddhists and Catholics go about our lives. We hear these pronouncements: sometimes they make us angry, sometimes they make us sad, sometimes they make us feel pity. But no one will ever be persuaded by them. They are a call to spiritual devolution, to a regression to lesser lives and diminished horizons. The spirit calls us on, and we won’t be shackled.

Turns of events

It’s now a year and a half since Ajahn Brahm and Bodhinyana monastery were excommunicated from their monastic circle, Wat Pa Pong, for disobeying orders by ordaining women in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.

Has anything got better?

Short answer: not so you’d notice.

Long answer:

Ajahn Brahm has been in discussions with some of the WPP Ajahns overseas, trying to arrange a forgiveness ceremony, to let go and move ahead. He is clear that neither he nor his Sangha are interested to rejoin Wat Pa Pong. They do, however, want WPP to stop the active campaign of cutting Ajahn Brahm and his monks out of communion, requiring that Ajahn Brahm’s monks effectively disown him as a teacher if they stay in a WPP monastery, and so on. After several discussions where such a move seemed hopeful, suddenly the word came from the WPP Ajahns: ‘It’s not time yet’.

I wasn’t aware there was a right time for forgiveness.

Having just spent a few weeks in Bodhinyana, when these issues were discussed regularly, I can confirm that there is a lot of pain and disappointment at WPP’s actions among both the lay and ordained communities. In speaking with Ajahn Brahm, however, I never heard him do anything other than seek for a way to resolve the conflict. There was no criticism, no sign of ill-will, only the question: ‘How do we get over this?’

Meanwhile, a serious situation of conflict at the branch monastery in Wellington, New Zealand has arisen. A little background is in order. The monastery was established around the same time as Bodhinyana in Perth, and by coincidence they chose a similar name, Bodhinyanarama (after Ajahn Chah’s Pali name). Bodhinyana was established by inviting monks from Thailand. However, Bodhinyanarama was established with monks from England, and hence they have always been part of the ‘Amaravati circle’. Like Bodhinyana, however, Bodhinyanarama was set up by a pre-existing Buddhist society operating as a charitable association, the Wellington Theravada Buddhist Association (WTBA), which purchased the land, developed the monastery, and holds the title.

Bodhiyanarama enjoyed its glory days early on, under the leadership of Ajahn Viradhammo, when it expanded to become a sizable and thriving monastery. Since he left it has dwindled, and for many years now has rarely housed more than one or two monks. Bhikkhunis are not welcome.

Now, Ajahn Tiradhammo, the current abbot, wishes to change the legal basis of the organization. He wishes to change the constitution of the charitable association, with its open membership and democratically elected committee, and replace it with a model under which the stewards are appointed by the sangha and the abbot is appointed from Wat Pa Pong and Amaravati, and the WPP monks who make up the ‘resident Sangha’ will appoint a committee of lay trustees to handle the financials. All control is taken away from the locals, and the WPP Sangha can effectively insulate itself.

As I have shown at length in previous posts, such an arrangement is neither Vinaya nor Thai custom.

There are no abbots in the Vinaya – there is not even a word for ‘abbot’. The Sangha is, not a self-defined organization that excludes others, but the universal Sangha of the ‘Four Quarters’. Short of schism, there are no grounds in Vinaya for a group of monks to set themselves up in this sort of exclusive way.

In Thailand, the abbot is traditionally chosen through consultation between the resident Sangha, the local lay community, and a representative of the Sangha administration. (The Sangha administration is involved because under Thai law the monastery law belongs to the Sangha as constituted under the Sangha Act, and so the authorities have a legal duty of care. This, of course, does not apply in the case of monasteries overseas.)

What is the argument for this change? As best as I can make out, the argument is that the current WTBA constitution does not give any guaranteed ‘rights’ to the monastic community, including things such as decisions regarding what to build, or what monastics can stay. Things have been merely workable under a tacit agreement between the Sangha and the lay committee. Of course it is reasonable for the monastic Sangha to have a say in what happens in the monastery, and for this to be reflected in a constitution. It is quite possible to do this in a way that still gives the local lay community a say. It’s just a matter of balance. Certainly this is no justification for handing the entire monastery over to people overseas, especially when there is no guarantee that monks will actually be sent.

Having failed to persuade the committee, Ajahn Tiradhammo resorted to branch stacking at the AGM held on June 12. He secretly organized for a number of new people to come expressly to support him, and coached them before the meeting, hoping to make them members of a new committee. However, on a technicality they were not able to become voting members for the AGM and the previous committee was largely re-elected.

(Curiously enough, a similar manouver was attempted by the notorious New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) at an AGM of the Australian Sangha Association a few years ago. On the eve of the AGM we got a flood of membership applications from every NKT member in Australia. Under the ASA constitution, however, the NKT members do not have a recognized ordination, so are legally unable to become members.)

Accounts of the meeting are highly emotional. Many people present were very upset by the way this was done, and what they saw as the open manipulation of democratic processes happening in their Dhamma hall.

A strong letter of complaint has been sent to Ajahn Tiradhammo and several of the western WPP Ajahns. There have been allegations that the proposed revision is illegal under New Zealand trust law. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.

What exactly is going on here? The rules of Wat Pa Pong remain: discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns. Since the majority of devotees reject these principles, they have been kept secret as far as possible; however this is no longer possible. The only way to ensure survival is to gain absolute power over the considerable wealth and property invested in the monasteries.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The Ajahns have been telling us these things for years. Equality, democracy, rights: according to the clear, often repeated, and explicit teachings of senior Wat Pa Pong Ajahns, these things are alien, ‘Western’ values irrelevant to the Dhamma and of no value for liberation. What we are now seeing is simply these principles put into practice.

WPP faces a choice. Will they continue to endorse these principles? Or will they begin the difficult process of reflection and change?

There is a storm coming, make no mistake. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it will come. The senior teachers are passing away, and so the spiritual center of gravity that has held the Wat Pa Pong tradition together is dissipating. There are those within WPP who believe that discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns are the heart of the Buddhist monastic tradition. And there are those within WPP who believe that these are corruptions that defile the true Buddhist tradition.

Can these very different viewpoints be reconciled? Of course! There’s no great secret: recognize the problem, accept that it needs to be overcome, and work with commitment to overcome it. Since even the first of these is a long way off, however, I’m not holding my breath.

One by one, each of the Wat Pa Pong branch monasteries will have to decide where it stands. Whether it is to be an instrument of Thai Buddhist colonialism, or a source of spiritual vitality in its own land. The moral question is a no-brainer. The hard part is how to make it work.

Healing the fallout from the Bhikkuni ordination

Here’s a new article from Dennis Sheppard, president of the BSWA, which he has asked me to post here.

Healing the fallout from the Bhikkuni ordination

Dennis Sheppard
President BSWA

Following the direction of the comments on my Presidential address to the BSWA’s March Annual General Meeting over the past month has been very interesting.

The depth and subtlety of the issues identified around the Bhikkuni ordination has been quite remarkable. It has been a pleasure to see these issues unpacked and deconstructed by the many very skilled and knowledgeable blogger’s.

There have been three main sites I have followed that include the BSWA’s own Community Chat Forum and our Dhamma TV site, but probably the site with the most interaction has been Ajahn Sujato’s blog space. (Many thanks to Ajahn Sujato for hosting such a free and open discussion.) I intend to post this response and plea on our own sites and I will ask Ajahn Sujato if he will post it on his as well.

My hope is that all the monks and lay communities that are involved, will see it, read it and allow harmony, friendship and peace to be restored.

One of the main themes that have emerged over the past month is the view that people have seen this trouble as being wider than the Bhikkuni ordination. The feeling is that Ajahn Brahm was out of favor with some of his colleagues before the ordination and the ordination was a catalyst to punish him, or perhaps bring him down a peg or two. In Australia we call it the “tall poppy syndrome”. This does seem to have validity as other monks from the same tradition have subsequently participated (at the same level as Ajahn Brahm) in Bhikkuni ordinations and virtually nothing has been said.

I have been aware of what I have always put down as a relatively friendly rivalry between the Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Sumedho method of teaching. The perennial question of whether absorption (jhana) or wisdom is the best approach in meditation. In Australia it is like the debate about whether a Holden car or a Ford is best. In the early days when A.B. was perfecting his practice I can imagine that there may have been some robust discussion amongst the different players to discuss which pathway was the best. A.S. was the established authority in the West at that time and I could well believe that A.B. may have come across as an upstart. Let me say that if that was how people did see him at the time, he is most definitely not that way now! I can attest that he is a very congruent, very sensitive, and a very wise monk. As for A.S, he was one of my first teachers. His clarity and wisdom takes my breath away. He is one of the finest monks on the planet.

The sad thing about today’s events is that it seems some of the perceived ill feeling is still being carried around by some of the monastic observers from that time. Further, it seems they may have infected some others who would not have known anything of what happened.

Having said that and having practiced with and knowing both of these great monks over many years, I am absolutely sure that neither of these two gentlemen carries any of this past stuff with them. They are both greats of the Theravadin tradition.

Given that everyone of us also aspire to peace clarity and stillness as a background to operate our lives from, it remains for the rest of us to examine ourselves, identify any blockages, beliefs or pain that we have created around this issue and move to a place where harmony and peace can prevail. This is my plea to all the monks and laity involved in commenting on or participating in the BSWA and AB lockout.

Please find a pathway through all of this mess to peace and harmony. Harmony must come first before we can expect peace to arise. As a very minimum, if you feel disaffected you must start talking to us. As I have said at the AGM it is no fun being sent to Coventry, and it paints a very poor picture of Buddha’s wonderful pathway. We must all practice to be good role models in the world to demonstrate the truth of the Buddha’s message; otherwise, what is the point?

I know there are many Western monks out side Thailand who wish for this unfortunate episode to be over — monks who would like to visit us and continue their friendship with AB. I am sure that there are also many Western monks in Thailand who would also like to remain friends with the BSWA. This whole issue needs to be raised to a level of maturity. It is unbecoming for us all to keep playing kindergarten politics.

We at BSWA do now understand that Bhikkunis’ in the Wat Pah Pong tradition will be a long way off. Having said that, we do not resile from our position with Bhikkuni’s. For all the reasons already outlined, they are now a permanent part of the BSWA. They are legal inside the Vinaya, they are a fact and we are overjoyed that they are now part of our landscape. We respect and honour WPP, but we do not wish to be reintegrated under the current circumstances.

Being affiliated with WPP would not fit with the BSWA’s constitution. This does not mean we do not want to be friends with you! Our roots are with WPP probably more deeply than many other branch monasteries. We all admire and respect the WPP tradition. Surely we can interact together in a friendly and harmonious way!

I respectfully ask the leadership of the Western WPP and the Thai WPP tradition to accept our overtures for harmony and peace so we can all live and learn together and propagate the Dhamma through this wonderful vehicle of Theravadin Buddhism.

BSWA President’s report on ‘being sent to Coventry’

At the Buddhist Society of WA’s AGM on 12/3/2001, an address was given by the president, Dennis Shepard, that commented on the ongoing persecution of monks associated with the bhikkhuni ordinations that took place in october 2009.

Below is a transcript from the relevant sections. This is reposted from the comments section.

Note that during the meeting, Ajahn Brahm asked Dennis whether he (AB) had instigated this address or asked Dennis to speak out on this; Dennis replied that he had not. Ajahn Brahm mentioned this to me specifically, as he feels that people smetimes accuse him of masterminding events behind the scenes. Similarly, the opinions expressed on this blog are my own – as I made clear in the title of the blog – and do not reflect Ajahn Brahm’s or anyone else’s opinions, unless i am quoting or referring to them.

The events that Dennis is referring to are well-known to us and are quite widespread. For example, I am teaching a retreat in Perth in June, because one monk who had already agreed to do it pulled out under pressure from WPP. I follow Dennis’ lead in not naming monks here; I believe that all members of WPP should be held responsible for these acts, as they are carried out as the policy of WPP as a whole.

“31. Fallout from Bhikkuni Ordination.

It is with some regret that I need to report to our members the hardening of attitudes towards us and in particular to Ajahn Brahm by some senior monks from the Wat Pah Pong group, obviously still angry and annoyed over the Bhikkuni ordination in October 2009. I have just re-read my report from last year, and realized that the harmony and forgiveness I was hoping for last year seems still to be a long way away. It feels like things have got worse. Over the past year I feel our committee and our supporters have, in the interest of harmony and peace, suppressed a lot of feelings and words that could have been said, in the hope that the silence would allow these disaffected monks, who are displaying ill will towards Ajahn Brahm, a clear view of what they are doing in order for them to see where they are at.

The Wat Pah Pong meeting that disenfranchised our centre and Ajahn Brahm as WPP affiliates never made any mention of following through with a ban on any monks speaking or associating with Ajahn Brahm. It never called for Ajahn Brahm or any monks that associate with him to be “sent to Coventry”. This however, is the reality of our circumstance now. Monks that were coming to teach or stay at Bodinyana have been intimidated and told to expect the same treatment that Ajahn Brahm received if they show any friendship to us. Even monks that we have trained are not allowed to return, on pain of being ostracized. Bodhinyana connected monks have been refused a place to stay in overseas monasteries connected to WPP. There have been many terrible and hurtful things said and done over the past year and frankly it makes me feel ashamed that Buddhist people, especially monks, could do such things.

I call on the leadership at Wat Pah Pong to take stock of what they are doing. If these things are happening without your knowledge, investigate it, and stop what is happening immediately.

Wat Pah Pong has inflicted a punishment on the Perth centre for ordaining bhikkunis against their wishes. We have accepted that punishment. As mentioned in last year’s report we are very sad about being disenfranchised from WPP, we never set out to have things turn out the way that it did.

We can accept that the WPP group does not want to be associated with the ordination of bhikkunis. However we expect that WPP should let us go our own way now that we are not affiliated. If there are monks who feel so strongly about women’s ordination that they do not want to associate with us then that is fine, but we cannot accept the war of fear and intimidation that is being propagated around the world to stop all WPP connected monks associating with us. Unfortunately the stage is set for some very nasty scenes around the world, unless this unfortunate episode can be resolved.

We have heard from many people around the world who are very concerned about the edicts that are coming from this select group of monks. Stories of intimidation and threats in order to change constitutions so that WPP can have the final say. WPP needs to understand that Western Countries outside Thailand have particular “Incorporations Laws” that govern their countries. I would predict that the constitutions that have been changed following pressure from WPP will not stand up if they ever get to a court. This is to say nothing of the morality behind of what these monks are setting out to do.

Why is it that WPP want to have control over the Buddhist Societies in other countries any way? Buddhism will only grow in countries where the grass roots people accept it and understand it through there own cultures. Thailand cannot expect to control how Western countries will perceive Buddhism.

The key note address given at the International Conference on the dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century held in Salaya Bangkok Sep/Oct 2010 by Richard Gombrick, had a lot to say on subjects like this. His discussion focused in particular on Theravadan Buddhism and how it should be best propagated in the West. I would recommend that all interested parties involved in the events since the Nun’s ordination and who are interested in the best way for host counties to export Buddhism into the countries that are interested in accepting it, to read this address. It is available on the web.

We are sorry for the trouble that has been caused between good friends in carrying out the ordinations in the way that we did, but is was inevitable. As my report last year demonstrated, we in Perth have been on this pathway for a long time. Everyone knew what we were planning to do. The constant refrain from our detractors that we should have done it differently and the spurious notion that we did it secretly does not hold water, any way you look at it. As mentioned in last years report, I still contend and have seen no evidence to change my mind that the secrecy was from the other side. The way that the WPP elders planned to introduce a new Siladara model for women at the Western Abbots Meeting in 2009 still rankles. Ajahn Brahm was never involved in this and was never informed that the secret meetings were taking place. It is here that the rot started and it needs to be acknowledged. Things may have been different if we had known and had participated!

We are now 18 months past the ordination. Please let us all be friends. It is no fun being at loggerheads with good friends. It is especially not fun being “sent to Coventry” by friends and people you admire and respect.

We in Perth are resigned to accept our fate in not being part of the Wat Pah Pong group; however we do not wish to be ostracized by monks who are friends and colleagues. If for reasons that you truly can not stand to be with us in the presence of our Bhikkuni community then OK, but we hope you will eventually change your mind. But for those who are interested in friendship, fellowship and propagation of the Dhamma then please break through this barrier of fear and intimidation and come and visit us. We in turn would love to be accepted and be allowed to visit you.

It is time for all this trouble to stop. Please accept our open hands in friendship.”

Letting Go the Hero

I came across this idea in an essay of Jung’s the other day: as a person reaches middle age, they must let go the Hero if they are to grow successfully into their new stage of life. I think we’re familiar with the middle-aged man who is lost in recounting the glories of his youth, unable to move on, until he becomes a tiresome bore.

And I think many of us are also familiar with the refrain, “When I was young monk…” that pops up so regularly in some Dhamma talks. I’ve always had a problem with this; for a start I can’t say it without breaking into a faux-Yorkshire accent.

When I encountered the idea of letting go the Hero it immediately stuck me. I hadn’t thought about things in this way before. I started reflecting on my own experience in the Thai forest tradition, and it helped to make more sense about what I’ve gone through and where I’m going.

First up, who or what is the Hero? The basic idea is that the Hero is the One who overcomes obstacles (the dragon fight) to win a prize (the treasure that is hard to gain) and returns home to re-enter society (the divine wedding). This story is portrayed in countless forms in myth and story, and according to Jungians its prevalence is because the Hero is in fact simply the Self, and the story of the Hero is the story of how each person finds himself (individuation).

Generally, the term Hero can be used for the individual in any stage of life, overcoming any kind of obstacle. But the most characteristic hero stories concern the young man – a warrior, student, or adventurer – who successfully grows from childhood into a mature adult life. And that is the sense that Jung is using here.

Of course, every life is different, and the obstacles we overcome and the successes we gain are all different. This is why there are so many forms of the hero myth. But the basic pattern remains the same. There is a formal consistency in the myth that seems to reflect universal truths about the human, or perhaps especially masculine, psyche.

In this essay I’m trying to express as concisely as I can some insights about the way that gender dynamics have informed the recent conflicts and difficulties over bhikkhuni ordination. Be warned: generalizations and stereotypes follow. While this is unfortunate, I think it is essential in this case, since we are dealing with a largely communal issue. It’s Sangha. There is a culture which has its own typical mindset; teachings are predominantly given to a group of people in general, not to individuals as in psychotherapy; and the dominant culture itself insists on and creates strong gender divisions. As one nun said to me, “I never felt like a woman until I went to the monastery”.

The prize that is hard to gain is always different – a ring, a treasure, a battle, a bride – but at its essence it is always the same: knowledge of ones’ self. This is why the Buddha’s life story is one of the clearest and most perfect examples of the hero myth: the central quest for Awakening is not hidden by a metaphor. This in itself points to the notion that the Buddha’s message, while delivered in a hero myth, goes beyond that and is not merely a mythic truth.

I am digressing here; my point is simply that the hero myth is central to Buddhism, and applies very much to the spiritual quest of monastics. Incidentally – and here’s another digression – the biographies of the forest Ajahns include many of the standard tropes of the hero myth (descent to the underworld, miraculous birth, marvellous childhood, encounter with the gods, and so on) and it would be fascinating to analyse them in detail in this light.

In the heroic, gung-ho warrior society of forest monks, what exactly is the hero’s quest? What are the obstacles? And how do they mesh with the particular needs of the monks?

Now, I’ve been using the masculine forms so far, quite deliberately. The hero myth is itself primarily masculine, and the environment I was immersed in at Wat Nanachat in Thailand was almost exclusively so. So for now I’ll proceed from this point of view, and consider the feminine perspective a little later.

It seems to me that we should exclude the general teachings of Buddhism here. Mindfulness, meditation, and so on are relevant in many different contexts, not just a forest monastery in Thailand. What are those teachings that are highly characteristic of that particular context?

When I thought of this, two things sprang to mind immediately. One concerns the body; the other, the mind.

Regarding the body, the basic message is – subdue it! As young monks, we undertake celibacy, eat one meal a day, and go without sleep once a week. We have just one set of robes, follow a strict discipline and ascetic code. We endure heat, cold, sickness, snakebite. All of which is pretty trivial compared with the real suffering: enduring postures. Sitting for many hours a day on hard floors, often with little or no cushion; it’s natural for Thais, but highly unnatural for westerners, so much so that many of us have ended up in the hospital. In retrospect it seems obvious that such a marked feature of the lifestyle should have significant psychological effects, and these effects would strongly differentiate our experience as westerners unused to such postures. Yet it never occurred to us to discuss this. We just endured.

In regard to the mind, the message is equally straightforward: don’t have any views! Meditation is about being silent, stopping thought. So if you have any views then obviously your meditation is no good, and so why should anyone listen to what you have to say? Of course this is a caricature, but it captures the spirit pretty well. When an idea is brought up, the response often was, “Well, that sounds like a view…”. Opinions and especially learning are considered to be close to or identical with pride; this association is encouraged by the peculiar Thai usage of the Pali diṭṭḥimāna, lit “conceit of views”, which in colloquial use comes to mean just “pride”.

It seems to me that the special emphasis on these two aspects of Dhamma practice are specially targeted at the core demographic of Wat Nanachat: educated western men in their twenties. Much like me.

Ahh, those were the days! For a man in his twenties, his body is still a potent instrument. At the height of his strength and sexual virility, he has yet to see the signs of ageing and decay, yet to experience an illness that he does not quite recover from. And the mind: from maybe fifteen or so, he has learned how to think, how to subject the world to the blinding power of his reason. He is frustrated with those, like his parents for example, who simply don’t get the intricate truths that he unveils. It never occurs to him that maybe they get it all too well; maybe they know that not all wisdom can be reasoned out and that life’s experience teach one a certain humility in the face of uncertainty and wonder.

Or at least, that’s how it was for me. And, I suspect, for a sizeable percentage of those who washed up at Nanachat looking for … something. And ending up in robes.

So, if that’s who you are, then the heroic teachings and lifestyle of Nanachat is the bomb. There’s a huge vitality, energy, and joy that comes from overcoming the body. A vast sense of relief from experiencing for the first time a peaceful mind; from realizing that not every thought is a profound world-shattering event. Let go of the body, disdentify from thoughts, and life suddenly becomes much, much better.

This is really an overwhelming experience. Before this most of us were lost. We didn’t know what life was about, where we were going, or what the point of it all was. For all our intellect and strength, we didn’t know what to do. Now, suddenly, we find who we are. We have real idols to look up to, paragons of virtue and wisdom (and some pretty cool magic tricks, too). We overcome the twin dragons of our attachment to body and views, and discover our True Self (which, of course, we say is “not self”).

I haven’t digressed for a while, so here’s one for you. The archetypal dragon in Indic myth is Vṛtṛa, the cosmic serpent whose defeat by Indra is celebrated in many hymns of the Ṛg Veda. Vṛtṛa had trapped the waters and the cows, condemning the earth to famine until Indra released them, ensuring bounty. But etymologically the root of Vṛtṛa means to bind or constrict; and it is the same as the well-known Pali term nīvaraṇa, as in the five “hindrances”. So when Jung read the ancient dragon myths as a metaphor for psychological realities, he was following a precedent already found in Buddhism…

But the story doesn’t end there. Just when when we thought the drama of the quest was at its height it gets turned up to eleven. At that very point where we discover our own self, we turn around and find ourself placed on an altar and worshipped like a god! We’ve gone from being hobos, backpackers, or itinerant musicians, all of a sudden to being the ethical and spiritual exemplars for a hall full of good people, who bow down to the ground in homage to us. Whoa.

The conscious teaching is that the people are not bowing to you, they are bowing to the robe. The worship of others should not be taken as a sign that we are anything special, but as a reminder of our sacred duty to live up to the honour of wearing the Banner of the Arahants. Like all conscious teachings, this works only partially. If we have really succeeded in subsuming our personal identity within the Sangha, it is fine. But many don’t; and there are two paths of downfall. If we feel like a failure, like we don’t deserve it, then we will become more and more depressed and either hide out from people in a hermitage or the like, or else disrobe. Or if we really do identify with the homage – which is especially likely if we tell ourselves that we don’t – then ego inflation follows “like a shadow that never leaves”.

In reality, of course, all of us have all of these tendencies, and it is a matter of a constant reflection and reminder that can keep the unwholesome at bay and the wholesome in the forefront.

So the training for young monks at Wat Nanachat is especially useful for young men like myself, as it answers specific problems and needs and in doing overcomes meaninglessness and unleashes a tremendous faith and focussed energy. I want to emphasize here that I am not trying to be reductive. I know there is much more to it than this. I am trying to keep it simple by focussing on just a few important things, very narrowly considered.

Like all good things, however, there is a shadow. And it is those of us who are so transfixed by the light who are most blind to the dark. What is the shadow here? It is the inversion of the things I have already considered.

The body: not all young men are infatuated by their bodies. There are some who are confused, shamed, uncertain. There are those who are bewildered by women, fearful of sex. Letting go of the body is not, for these, a much-needed distancing to counterbalance an over-identification, but a validation of their own self-disgust, an over-repulsion from they were already repulsed by.

The mind: not all young men are caught up in their own views and conceits. Some are simply lost in the world. They don’t know what to think, and more importantly, how to think. They have experienced our post-modern world of relativism and moral quicksand and they can’t cope. They need a simple, externally imposed set of values and views that they can accept by way of submission to authority. And, having lost faith that such an authority can be found in the west, they are fascinated by the forest masters as the last vestige of higher truth. They love the idea of letting go of views, because they have never had any. They are happy to stop thinking, because they never really learned how to do so.

In both of these cases, the life and teachings that are so beneficial for many are just the wrong medicine, and the outcome is not good.

When I was writing earlier about the stereotypical “young male” psychology I found myself using “I” and “we”, while just now in speaking of the shadow I automatically shifted to the third person: “they”. When I noticed this it made me uncomfortable; I felt like my language was externalizing and projecting. But of course, all of these tendencies and forces are found within all of us, and how it works out in practice is a matter of balance. My aim in isolating the shadow is not to externalize it and project it on others, but to bring it into the light. I use the first person because that’s how it felt to me, my primary identification. The shadow feels to me like an “other”, so that’s how I talk about it.

Up until now we’ve only been considering the male perspective. How might these things work in feminine experience? The most obvious thing is that the values and struggles so far have been highly masculine in nature, with little emphasis on feminine qualities, which does very much reflect the reality of life at Wat Nanachat as I experienced it. It was acknowledged among the monks that a softer, more metta-oriented approach was emerging at that time (mid-90s) from the English communities, and this was specifically associated with the sīladharā communities. This approach had a certain limited influence on how we went about things.

I don’t want to stress this point too much, as in many ways the monks’ lifestyle did develop what are stereotypically feminine values, such as nursing and looking after each other, even though the orientation was clearly towards the masculine. A discussion of this would lead us too far astray. So rather than look into the question of the overall balance of practice, I’ll stick with the two characteristic teachings that I have used so far.

It seems to me that in regards to the body and to views, women typically have a quite different set of problems.

Body issues for women are often, not the over-identification with one’s physicality, but revulsion, doubt, and image problems. This is a major theme of feminist psychology: the pervasive images of physically perfect women, air-brushed visions constructed for the gaze of men, are an ideal hardly any women (even those in the images!) can actually live up to in reality. As a consequence women are worried, sometimes obsessed with the imperfections of their own bodies, something the advertising, fashion and cosmetic surgery industries thrive on. But these are only the modern expressions of an age-old problem; the Roman myth of Cupid & Psyche revolves around similar issues. More troubling, eating disorders are the outcome of this tendency taken to a pathological extreme. It is a disturbing fact that the history of eating disorders before modern times is, by and large, a history of nuns.

Turning to views, it is another theme of feminist psychology that women still, even in modern societies today, struggle to find their “voice”. The opinions of women are undervalued, disregarded. To express opinions they have to adapt themselves to the male discourse or find themselves ignored. It is not, in modern secular society at least, that they cannot have anything to say, but that what they do say glides past male ears without leaving much of an impression.

It is very striking to me that these issues are virtually the opposite of the monks’. In fact, the mainstream problems of the women seem very similar to the shadow side of the men. In both cases the problems are disgust and confusion about the body, and doubt and a struggle to articulate one’s ideas and views.

This is something I’ve heard from the nuns several times: they have to carry the shadow of the monks. I’ve never fully understood what this entails, but here I seem to be getting a clearer notion. The monks at the conscious level have to work with disidentifying from the body. At the shadow level we have unconscious confusions about our strength and sexuality. These shadow elements are for women not the shadow but the primary conscious struggle; women often express the path as an “embodiment”, a coming into conscious relation with the body and earth.

A similar pattern makes sense in the realm of views. Young western men are used to being listened to, to having their views taken seriously, and are intoxicated with their own ability to work things out rationally. Their practice is to subdue this tendency, experience quiet, and understand that their views are not always the truth. The shadow is the fear of the irrational. Women’s voices are not valorized, so their practice should be a coming-to-voice, a finding of ways to understand and articulate their own vision of the truth. In the masculinist monasteries, however, this is not possible: women’s wisdom is dismissed as “feminism”, which by definition is not worth listening to. There was apparently a book by Simone de Beauvoir at the Nanachat library before I got there: it was burnt. The monks have found themselves by subduing their voice, and they don’t consider that maybe the women have to find themselves by expressing their voice.

In both these cases the nuns are quite literally the monks’ shadows coming to life. They are the very thing the monks have struggled so manfully against, and in their triumph over which their own positive sense of self has been formed. I think this is why monks find it so hard to understand why nuns can’t just let go and submit to the form. That’s what they’ve been doing and it doesn’t work: not because they can’t let go, but because the form is wrong for them.

So what about middle-age? Here I am, 44. The section on ageing in the four noble truths is no longer just a reflection but a reality: the breaking of the teeth, the wrinkling of the skin, the greying of the hair… How do I relate to these two principles now?

Jung gives a lovely image for the development process through life. He compares it to the sun, which rises out of the waters of the unconscious in the morning. In the first half of life, the sun is oriented to the zenith. It is climbing towards ever higher consciousness, illuminating ever more widely and more brightly. And every passing hour is a further revelation of splendour. From noon, however, things change. Each hour signifies a diminishing of light. One is no longer looking up, but down towards the horizon. One is approaching, once more, the darkness of the twilight. But the twilight of the dusk is very different than the twilight of the dawn, which is full of excitement and hope. The dusk is peaceful, full of memory and reflection as one draws into the completion of a life.

So once again: the body. The primary task is no longer the disidentification, but the acceptance. The intoxication with the body in all its pleasures and possibilities has faded. The foolish response is despair and a desperate attempt to hang on and relive the glories of youth. For many people, this is what “not letting go the hero” is. The wise approach is just what the Buddha said when Ānanda pointed out the wrinkles on his back: “So it is, Ānanda! So it is, Ānanda!”

The mind: here too the basic problem is quite different from youth. I’ve been around quite a bit, and have been in discussions with many people of all sorts of values and ideologies. I know very well that my voice is only one among many, and that my views and ideas are often wildly off the mark. And yet: I have to make decisions. I’m responsible. I’m here in the monastery, and in many other contexts, where decisions need to be made. And, sometimes, argued for and insisted upon. In any case there is a decision, whether or not it is my view; and I have to accept responsibility for that. This is, I think, a key difference between middle age and youth. The young can play with ideas and largely escape their consequences – or at least, so they think. This notion of making mature decisions is not something that has been taught in monasteries, to my knowledge.

The stages of life and their importance has not, it seems to me, been considered carefully in Buddhism. Perhaps this is because in the prime story of Buddhism, the Buddha himself seems to transcend such development, reaching a completion of his journey while still a young man. Most of us have a slower and more uncertain path. Such lesser lives as ours are recounted throughout the Jātakas, and these often tell of spiritual progress through the stages of life. We find that the young man is a student, a prince, or a warrior; defeating his dragon he ascends to the mature stage, a teacher, king, or family leader; in the last stage of life he continues his growth, finally becoming a sage, an embodiment of wisdom for all.

I think there are some great examples of monks who have continued their growth through their lives. Two examples that come to mind: Ajahn Brahm and Bhikkhu Bodhi. They are both in places in their lives that would have seemed unthinkable twenty years ago. Yet their growth does not come from a rejection of the values of their youth, but grows out of it, assimilating and integrating, while moving towards a wider, deeper, and more powerful vision.

If we have some understanding of this, we’ll be able to better appreciate how what appear to be contradictory or problematic teachings are sometimes simply appropriate for different stages of life. It also reminds me not to get stuck in the past. Whenever I say “When I was a young monk…” the real issue is not my struggle to avoid a Yorkshire accent, but the words themselves: “I was”. What “I was” is not the issue: it’s what I am, and what I can be.

Monastery Constitutions

Now that’s something I’ll bet you’re all fascinated in. You snuggle in at night, guiltily hugging your latest monastery constitution, staying up till the wee hours to get to the bit where it talks about procedures for the AGM. Admit it, you’re busted!

Or not.

Actually, we all want to avoid such things, don’t we? Just get on with the practice, and let someone else worry about the legalities. Then, bit by bit, you get more involved, maybe end up on a committee or as an abbot, and there it is, waiting to be read: the Constitution!

I’ve had a reasonable amount to do with constitutions, having been involved in reforming the Santi constitution, as well as formulating one for the ASA.

When I arrived at Santi, the original constitution had been set up so that Ajahn Brahm would be the Spiritual Director, more or less in absentia. The framers had apparently thought that, with the future uncertain, it was necessary to give Ajahn Brahm quite strong powers. Effectively, as Spiritual Director, he could veto any major expenditures and other decisions, and, essentially, could not be expelled from his position.

Of course, the reality was that Ajahn Brahm took a very hands off approach, and only responded when we asked for his help. But the legal structure was there.

After I was here for three years, Ajahn Brahm and the committee invited me to take over as Spiritual Director. I took the opportunity to work with the committee to revise the constitution. One of the crucial reforms was to make the Spiritual Director accountable. Now, he – and she if there is a bhikkhuni Sangha – must be nominated by the Sangha, then further accepted by the Committee. If the committee rejects the Spritual Director, the matter goes back to the Sangha. If there is a deadlock, the matter is referred to an external body for mediation.

The basic point is that there is no absolute power. All power is provisional and balanced.

The committee at Santi FM is elected at the AGM, from the members of the incorporated association, which anyone may apply to join. So there is a balance between the powers of the lay and ordained community, and no-one is the absolute ruler.

This, of course, is Dhamma: the Buddha refused to appoint a monk as his successor, said that the Sangha should operate according to Dhamma-Vinaya, not according to any individual. The Dhamma-Vinaya sets up principles and procedures – openness, democracy, accountability, transparency – that are pretty much the same as those required of normal incorporated associations today, although of course the details are somewhat different.

However, this isnot the case in growing numbers of monasteries. Many monasteries, particularly of the Western Wat Pa Pong tradition, are set up like a corporation. The monastery is a company, whose assets are owned by the shareholders. And the shareholders are a couple of lifetime appointed monks. Full stop.

Many of these documents are available online. If you’re interested, you can find them on most of the relevant monastery websites.

What a peculiar arrangement! A charity where the sole owners are also the sole beneficiaries. I wonder how this can even be legal.

This kind of model is becoming the standard among the western Wat Pa Pong branches. Monks are re-writing constitutions, advising the lay committees to abandon the balanced, democratic models, such as used at Santi and the BSWA, and to bring the constitutions of various monasteries in line with the ‘standard': the ‘Dhamma-Vinaya of Wat Pa Pong’, as they put it.

Which means, among other things,no equality for women, ever.

There seems to be some implication that this is the ‘right way’. But whatever it is, it is certainly not what the Vinaya requires. Vinaya is always balanced and open.

It’s most interesting that the preferred model seems to be the ‘company with shareholders’. Why is that, I wonder? What is a company? – Well, I guess it’s an organization that is created specifically for the benefit of its member. We expect a commercial company to be selfish and to attempt to monopolize power to itself.

That is why there are other forms of organization for other kinds of activities. Charities, NGOs and so on – these are not created for the benefit of a few individuals, but to serve the community.

As monastics, we are living entirely on the donations offered freely by the kindness of lay donors – should they not have some say in how those resources are used? Should a monastery be something that is rather more like a company, or more like a charity?

When governments arrogate power to themselves and exclude the people, we call that totalitarianism, and think of it as the worst kind of evil. A good government shares with the people, listens to them, and responds to their needs. This is the kind of government I want to live under.

And while Australia is by no means perfect, it does try. In a couple of weeks, I’m in Canberra, where I’ve been invited to represent the Australian Buddhist community in a community consultation on human rights in Australia. We can be as cynical as we like about the motives of governments, but at least its happening. And since the invitation is there, we should take it up. If we don’t use our voice, we forget how to use it. If we don’t stand up to defend others, who will be there when we need help?

If this is the standard that we expect of governments, should not we expect even more from religions? Shouldn’t religions be setting the pace, showing an example of how things can be done? Do we really want to participate in a monastery whose legal structure resembles that of a money-grabbing company, or a totalitarian state?

We come to Buddhism to learn and grow spiritually. That means becoming wiser, more responsible, more free – able to choose our own destiny. Sadly enough, monastics in some circles seems to regard acquiescence as the highest virtue. If we are not careful, we will end up becoming exactly the opposite of our original vision.

It seems that, with the bhikkhuni ordination, and the retirement of Ajahn Sumedho, the Ajahns of Wat Pa Pong fear that monasteries will drift off and do their own thing. With no charismatic leader to inspire unity, the only recourse is legal. Bringing monasteries tighter into the fold will discourage the development of local, independent communities, and make monasteries increasingly subject to decisions and policies made elsewhere, into which the local communities will have no input.

If you’d like to, say, treat bhikkhunis as equal, bad luck. That’s not the ‘Dhamma-Vinaya of Wat Pa Pong’.

All this is very far from the original Vinaya vision ofmonasteries as independent, run by the local villageor community for the benefit, not of the Sangha of Wat Pa Pong, but for the Buddha’s Sangha of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

I wonder which way you’d prefer your local monastery to be? If you don’t know, educate yourself. Ask questions, read the constitution, and make an informed choice.

Mitra Conference &c

The past week has been one of our most active ever.

Start with Friday: Vens Thubten Chodren, Hui Feng, and Yeshe Chodron joined us for the talk at Well-Aware-Ness. All was good, a discussion and Q&A. Most of the interest was for Ven Thubten and her activities. She’s a warm and humble nun, whose presence was very special.

For the weekend, a series of talks. I attended Ven Tenzin Palmo, Ajahn Brahm, Gregory Kramer, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda… As well as a lot of time catching up with people I seem to only see at these conferences… The talks were of uniformly high quality. One of the things that strikes me about hearing such experienced teachers is that the longer they have been practicing, the humbler they are about what they know and have realized.

I led a few sessions, including three short sessions for the Expo that was run concurrent with the conference. For those of you who weren’t there, this year, in addition to the conference, the BCNSW organized ongoing, free, half-hour sessions in the same building on the ground floor below the conference. These were meant to attract passers by, or those who didn’t want to commit for the entire conference. It was an experiment, and one that worked extremely well.

Although bhikkhuni issues were not the theme of the conference, it was never far from our minds, with so many powerful bhikkhunis present with us. When the October 2009 bhikkhuni ordinations were mentioned, they got a spontaneous round of applause. When I was sitting there, I felt really sad for the monks who have gone to such lengths to oppose bhikkhuni ordination. It must be very isolating, knowing how deeply offensive your actions are to the people who would love to look up and respect you.

During the conference, we found time for some meetings: one with several ASA members to work on the upcoming ASA conference; and another with several members of the FABC to discuss various issues.

After the conference, we supported a few events. Ajahn Brahm had agreed to give a talk for the Indonesian Buddhist Society on the Sunday evening. On the monday, we had a dana with Ajahn Brahm at Well-Aware-Ness, mainly organized by John Barter and his students.

Monday evening we went for Ajahn Brahm’s talk at Roselea Community Center. This was the outstanding event of the weekend. We had wanted to put on a free public talk for Ajahn Brahm, and since we didn’t have much time or resources, we thought to do it very simply. We looked for community halls of about 2-300 people, but the only place we could get was the Roselea Hall, which fits 700. So we went ahead anyway, and there was a great groundswell of interest, mainly from the Sri Lankan community, who use the Roselea hall for regular events such as the Aloka food fair. With only a little advertising and promotion, people just came together, set everything up, and made it into a great event. In the end, the hall was packed tight, with well over 900 people present. It was an extraordinary testament to the strength of the Buddhist community, as well as the wisdom of letting people just get on with it.

Following Roselea, we came back to Santi with Ajahn Brahm, arriving about 1.00am. The next day we had some discussions with Ajahn Brahm, and an afternoon class with Ven Hui Feng, who taught about the development of the Mahayana tradition. early Wednesday morning, we sent Ajahn Brahm and Ven Jaganatha to Perth, and Ven Hui Feng returned to Hong Kong.

Then we had a rest…

Causing Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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