And now, in religions’ baffling inability to cope with women…

A Christian group at Bristol University in England is being investigated for its discriminatory policies. Women are banned from teaching at their weekly meetings without their husbands beside them. The email from their president said:

“We understand that this [women teaching] is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our CU:Equip meetings [its principal weekly meeting], as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away or as our main speaker for mission weeks.”

The email goes on to say that women may teach at these meetings, as long as it it with their husbands.

It is fantastic that these discriminatory policies are being dealt with at last. The sad thing is, of course, that similar discriminatory policies are being practiced in Buddhism. From Amaravati’s notorious “Five Points” of discrimination against women:

2. In line with this, leadership in ritual situations where there are both bhikkhus and siladhara–such as giving the anumodana [blessings to the lay community] or precepts, leading the chanting or giving a talk–is presumed to rest with the senior bhikkhu present. He may invite a siladhara to lead; if this becomes a regular invitation it does not imply a new standard of shared leadership.

The full list is on Leigh Brasington’s site. He’s added a variation to the list that was created some time ago, where “monk” and “nun” are replaced by “Whites” and “Blacks”. There are more variations here. The alternate wordings create a stark and disturbing impression, as if the original was not creepy enough.

We can only hope that Buddhist groups realize the harm that these policies create and change them before they are forced to do so by the law.

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.

Gangraped Nepal nun now faces expulsion from nunnery

The Times of India reports a harrowing story of violence and ignorance. Please read it first before coming back to this post.



This story is shocking: for a woman, from a powerless and disadvantaged background, who has chosen to live a life of simplicity in accord with the precepts of her religion, to be so abandoned by those who should be protecting her.

This story is by no means unique. I have heard of such cases many times. The rejection and denial by the Buddhist authorities in such cases only fuels more attacks. The nuns know that if they are raped they will be expelled, so they do not report the attacks, and men come to know that they can rape nuns with impunity.

The Nepalese Buddhist authority says that such cases never came up in the Buddha’s time, and appears to be arguing that one has to be a virgin to be ordained. This is an astonishing level of ignorance – repeatedly refuted in the comments to the article (the blog commenters know more about Buddhism than the authorities…). Half an hour with a Vinaya book would have showed him that rape did in fact occur in the Buddha’s lifetime, and the Buddha was very clear: there is no offence for the victim, and the perpetrator has committed one of the most heinous crimes possible.

But it’s not the factual mistake that is the real worry: it’s the disturbing way that a half-baked allusion to a mythical past somehow acts as a blanket excuse for such unfeeling dismissal. Supposedly ‘Buddhist’ ideas are being used to diminish compassion and justify cruelty.

Rape is no surprise. It is, shamefully, a part of human life everywhere. The incidence of violent crimes against women is horrific, no matter where or when you live. But there are things that can be done about it, starting with identifying that the rapist is the criminal, and he should be punished, not the victim.

It is a long road, and there is no simple solution. As people committed to Buddhism as a spiritual path, we need to recognize the close links between the status of women in the Sangha and the wider picture of violence to women. If the patriarchs of a religion treat women like this, how can they expect to set an example for the rest of society? The outcome of the consistent denial of women’s equality and refusal to recognize the fullness of women’s humanity is all too predictable. Recent figures from the UN reveal that over 60% of men in Thailand think it is sometimes justifiable to beat your wife, a figure that is second worst in the world.

Now Thailand has a female Prime Minister. Yingluck said in an interview that there is equality for women in Thailand; this is true in law, but far from true in practice. Hopefully her presence will do some good.

We need to get over surprise and denial. Rape and violence against women is a sign of a mind that is sick. But such minds do not exist in isolation. They emerge from a culture where women are routinely objectified, denigrated, regarded as lesser – the Tibetan word for woman means ‘inferior birth’.

Denigration of women runs deep in Buddhist culture: it is there in the absence of women’s voices, in the texts that speak of women as ‘black snakes’, in the refusal to allow women ordination, in the persecution of those who speak up about discrimination, in the routine beatings in homes of ‘good Buddhists’, in the abominable trade in sex slaves in Buddhist countries, in the silence of the patriarchs on women’s issues, in the monopolization of resources and information by men, in menstruation and other taboos on women’s bodies, in the meditations on the ‘repulsiveness’ of female bodies, in the patronizing control rules of the garudhammas or Amaravati’s ‘Five Points’, in the inane locker-room talk of Buddhist men, in the routine externalization of male desire projected as emanating from the feminine, in the denigration of concern for women as ‘Western feminism’. And it is there, in its most brutal and pure form, in the gang rape and subsequent rejection of a young nun from the lowest class of society.

Not that this is in any way a ‘Buddhist’ problem. It is a human problem, which finds expression in just about every form of human culture. Western culture demeans and reduces women in its own ways, but until we get our act together we can’t hope to help others.

I’ve been through a slow, uncertain, and sometimes agonizing internal process. I gradually came to recognize how I was participating in the sexism of the Sangha culture I had joined, and started trying to untie it bit by bit, and to do what I can to help others. It is not obvious; it is a corruption deeply embedded in culture and language, and it erupts in feverish emotion whenever the pattern of denial is challenged.

The more I raised the question to consciousness, the more I realized how bizarre it all is. To treat or think of women as in any way ‘evil’ or ‘lesser’ is to regard half of humanity as somehow built wrong. It is as absurd as to criticize the sky for being inadequate, or the earth for being wrong. We need to stop participating in this madness. We need to speak out. We need to stop complying. We need to act.

UPDATE: The Nepal Buddhist Federation, who’s representative is quoted in the article, appears to be a legitimate body which is doing good work in Nepal. If you’d like to help go to their website and leave them a message asking them to reconsider their policy regarding nuns who have been raped. Here’s the message I left:

I am writing concerning the recent article in the Times of India concerning a nun who was gang raped and subsequently expelled from her monastery. A representative of your organization was quoted as saying that a nun who has been raped cannot continue to be a nun. This is not true: the 1st parajika offence for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis is only for consensual intercourse. In addition, it is not a compassionate and helpful attitude, which as you can see from the many comments to the article, has caused a great deal of criticism of Buddhism. I humbly beg you to reconsider your policy and urge that nuns who are the victims of such heinous crimes be accepted and cared for in their communities.

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.”

A Further Note on Monastery Constitutions

In continuing my occasional series on Monastery constitutions and the legal/Vinaya issues involved, I’d like to take a short look at one recently revised constitution, that of Vimutti Monastery in New Zealand.

Vimutti is governed under the legal framework of the Auckland Theravada Buddhist Association. The ATBA has been an active presence for many years, and has had a long association with the WPP Sangha, originally through Bodhinyanarama monastery in Wellington, and later with the establishment of Vimutti under Ajahn Chandako. Since Vimutti has started, the ATBA has flourished, and the monastery, while still small, has been successful in bringing a forest tradition presence into the local region.

What I’d like to look at here is very narrowly some of the legal implications of the recently revised constitution. I don’t have access to the previous constitution, so I can’t say how the new one has been changed. But it certainly embodies some of the basic principles that are fundamental to the ideology of the new WPP direction.

The ATBA constitution starts with a typical set of aims, to propagate the Dhamma as taught in the Theravada tradition. It also lists as basic aims to ‘carry on the teachings and training of Ajahn Chah’ (2.e) and ‘to sponsor Theravada Buddhist monks who have taken dependence [nissaya] upon venerable Ajahn Sumedho or his successors as Teacher. (2.f)

It seems to me these clauses are deeply problematic, if not inherently contradictory.

To start with, notice that nowhere in these aims is there any mention of the Buddha’s teachings apart from the traditions. Of course it is obvious to any student of Buddhism that what is taught as ‘Theravada’ has a complex relationship with the teachings actually taught by the Buddha. It is also obvious that many of the teachings found within the Thai forest tradition are not the same as those found in traditional ‘Theravada’, and in some cases, is not found in the suttas either. I am not going to argue this here, but will simply take it for granted; certainly it is widely accepted within the Thai forest tradition itself that this is the case. Just as one example, Luang Ta Bua claims on the basis of his meditation experience that some of the things found in the suttas cannot be correct.

So we have a number of complex strands here, and no obvious way to sort through them. They are simply placed side by side, as if there is no issue.

But of course there are very many issues. One of the basic ones is, ‘Who gets to stay in the monastery?’ For monastics this is a crucial problem – we have to live somewhere.

The Vinaya as I understand it is that any monk has a right to reside in any monastery, unless there is a good reason not to; for example if there is not enough accommodation, or if the monk’s behaviour is inappropriate. (I will leave the question of bhikkhunis until later).

The ‘Theravada’ position, on the other hand, is that only Theravadin monks can fully participate in monastic life, especially sanghakamma. If ‘Mahayana’ monks arrive, they might be allowed to stay, but would remain on the periphery. This is the normal case in Wat Nanachat and other WPP monasteries, so far as I am aware.

The Thai tradition is then complicated by the division into Dhammayut and Mahanikay, a division that cuts right across the forest/city monk divide. Typically, if Mahanikay monk, such as a WPP monk, arrives at a Dhammayut monastery, they may stay for a short or long time, depending on the policy of the monastery, and they will normally be excluded from sanghakamma and other central Sangha processes.

What of the Ajahn Chah tradition? I remember long ago hearing, I believe it was Ajahn Jayasaro, recounting a story on this very point – someone please correct me if my memory is faulty. But it was when some of the senior WPP Ajahns had suffered the indignity of being treated as less than full monks at a Dhammayut monastery. Typically, we would have to have food offered separately, and so on. I have seen this myself, and seen the antagonism this arouses in the WPP Ajahns – as one Ajahn said to me, ‘We’re just novices to him!’ So, Ajahn Chah asks the monks, ‘What should we do?’ One of the Ajahns said, ‘Well, if they’re going to lock us out, we should do the same to them when they visit us!’ But Ajahn Chah said, ‘Well, how about we treat them according to Vinaya, instead? If they are good monks keeping good Vinaya, we should treat them as such.’

It was hearing such teachings that gave me faith in Ajahn Chah’s teachings. I had always been given to understand that the cornerstone of Ajahn Chah’s practice was to ignore the dross, and to focus on the core teachings of the Buddha – the four noble truths.

So it seems to me that the thrust of Ajahn Chah’s teachings was to bypass such notions as ‘Theravada’ and isolated, sectarian groupings, and to draw people into a closer, more real engagement with the essence of the Buddha’s teachings.

Now, the orientation of WPP has shifted so that reliance on the Dhamma-vinaya is effectively ignored (Remember that when Ajahn Brahm was expelled from WPP, he repeatedly asked for the Ajahns to tell him what he was doing wrong according to Vinaya, only for them to refuse to give any reply.)

One critical difference here is that, when we say we will rely on the Dhamma-vinaya, there is an objective standard. We can all reference the texts and discuss what is in them. But the tradition of Ajahn Chah is largely an oral one, and only the monks can be experts. And of course, hardly any of the Western monks have actually lived with Ajahn Chah for any length of time, so what the Ajahn Chah tradition really is, is a wide open field.

For example, Ajahn Chah always refused to have a monastery car. Now, of course, most monasteries do have cars, and in some cases, like Wat Nanachat, this is an extremely luxurious van. Now, should such changes be made? Well, in some cases, obviously yes. Times change, and we adapt. The critical questions are: What changes? Why? And who decides? Ajahn Chah was dead against such rituals as making holy water and messing with amulets and so on. But these things are common in WPP monasteries, even though they are against the rules. When Ajahn Chah was alive, he heard that people had gone to dig up the toilet of Ajahn Mun searching for relics: he ridiculed such a notion. But after he died, what did they do? … You guessed it…

The notion of those monks who ‘have taken dependence on Ajahn Sumedho and his successors’ is equally obscure. This is a crucial clause, as it allows for the ‘sponsorship’ of such monks, presumably by supporting them in their visa applications. If monks cannot get such sponsorship, it will be practically impossible for them to stay long term.

But what does this really mean? Ajahn Chandako has never been a student of Ajahn Sumedho. He was, for a time, a student of Ajahn Pasanno – is he a ‘successor’ to Ajahn Sumedho? What does this notion really mean? I know very well that Ajahn Chandako disagrees with some of Ajahn Sumedho’s central teachings, and has a very different orientation in his practice. For example, Ajahn Sumedho downplays the importance of samatha, while Ajahn Chandako is very dedicated to samatha. In fact, Ajahn Chandako’s main teachers in his early years were the Dhammayut forest masters, and a few of the Thai WPP Ajahns, not Ajahn Sumedho at all. This is not a criticism; in fact I think it is one of the strengths of the WPP tradition that it is not dogmatic – or at least, it has not been so in the past. The problem here is, what does it mean to be a ‘successor’ to Ajahn Sumedho?

If being a student of Ajahn Sumedho or his successors does not refer to actual studentship, or to following in the teachings and practices, it seems to me it can only refer to one thing: institutional maintenance. the ‘successors’ to Ajahn Sumedho are the self-appointed monks in positions of power within the overseas WPP branches.

This is all, of course, quite different from the teachings of the Suttas. Here is an abbreviated version of an example from the Gopakamoggallāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 108). This is a discussion between the layman Vassakara, a minister of Rajagaha, and Ānanda, shortly after the Buddha’s passing away.

‘Ānanda, is there any single bhikkhu who was chosen by the Buddha, or by the Sangha or Elder bhikkhus, to be your refuge after the Buddha is gone?

‘No, brahmin, there is not.’

‘But then, Ānanda, how do you live in harmony? What is your refuge’

‘We are not without refuge – the Dhamma is our refuge. The Buddha has laid down the training and prescribed the patimokkha. On Uposatha day, all the bhikkhus who live near a certain town meet in unison, and one recites the patimokkha. If a bhikkhu has a transgression, he confesses it, and we deal with that in accordance with the Dhamma. It is not the monks who make us act, it is the Dhamma that makes us act.’

This is in line with the statement by the Buddha that after he passes away, the Dhamma-vinaya that he has taught should be the teacher.

It is quite clear, then, that the Buddha did not set up any teacher’s lineages. This was reaffirmed at the Second Council, which was one of the defining events in the formation of Theravada. The Second Council ruled that following the practice of the teachers was allowable only if it was in accord with Dhamma-Vinaya. This principle became the cornerstone of modern Thai Buddhism, as King Mongkut criticized those who merely practised according to the teacher’s traditions, and always insisted on going back to the original teachings.

But sectarianism is a many-headed hydra. In every generation there are some who think they have the right to overturn the Buddha’s instructions. Invariably, this attitude comes from a sense of entitlement: that I, and my friends, have a unique place of privilege in Buddhism. Following that sense of entitlement, the next step is to guarantee continued ownership of land and resources. Remember, the very first thing that was said after Ajahn Brahm was expelled from WPP was, ‘Lets get his monastery!’ This wasn’t just a random statement by a loose monk, but was followed up with a formal delegation by a WPP committee that tried the pressure the central authorities to take Bodhinyana away from Ajahn Brahm.

This is the overall tenor of the ATBA constitution: to lock resources up inside the WPP tradition. This is further emphasised in the crucial role of the abbot. The abbot, of course, is not mentioned in the Vinaya; the very word for abbot is of later coinage (āvāsadhipati). So there are no Vinaya procedures for appointing an abbot. The closest would be in the appointment of Sangha officers. These are officials who have responsibility for looking after various duties in the monastery, such as the stores or accommodation. In these cases, the officer is appointed by sanghakamma, which requires, as with all sanghakamma, the unanimous consent of the bhikkhus within the sima.

The ATBA constitution states that the abbot is to be selected by unanimous agreement of the resident monks (that is, all those who are approved ‘Theravada’ monks, not all bhikkhus as in the Vinaya) in consultation with the abbots of WPP, Bodhinyanarama and other abbots in the lineage of Ajahn Chah. Since it is a consultative process, this is still within the general guidelines of Vinaya that one should respect and listen to Elders. Notice, however, that the requirement for consultation is not, as stated in the Gopakamoggallana Sutta and elsewhere, that the bhikkhus should be of a high spiritual level, but that they have been appointed to certain institutional positions.

The abbot is then confirmed by the Committee by a majority vote. It is not clear to me what would happen if the Committee disagrees. In any case, contrast this with the procedure as stated in the earliest of the Thai Sangha Acts, which is still the custom in Thailand, that the abbot is chosen at a meeting of the local devotees with the Sangha and the local regional Sangha head.

But the critical problem here is that the abbot retains the position until he dies, resigns, or the abbots of WPP and Bodhinyana issue written statements saying he must resign. (For some reason the usual clause ‘or if he disrobes’ is missing here.)

This is a very serious problem. The abbot of the monastery cannot be expelled by the Committee, but can be expelled at any time by two monks living in distant monasteries. The local community has no say in who those monks are, what decision that make, or why they make it. If such a clause had been present in the BSWA constitution, without doubt Ajahn Brahm would have been expelled following the bhikkhuni ordination. More likely, of course, he would never have supported it – which, it would seem, is why this clause has been inserted.

The effect of these clauses is to lock the ATBA up within the WPP tradition, as an institution, not as a spiritual movement. It seems to me that the lay community, having agreed to adopt this position, has effectively given up all power to change it, since the abbot can veto any decisions (4k).

It would seem that this veto power is balanced by the notion of an overriding resolution that may be adopted at a Special General Meeting. (8) Such a resolution may be put forward at a SGM proposed by the abbot or the committee or at least 10 members of the ATBA, and must be supported by at least 75% of the members present at the meeting. While this is not easy to achieve, it does give some measure of possibility for change.

However, it seems to me that this is undermined by section 17a and 17b. These deal with actually changing the rules for the constitution, and allow that the rules may be changed only with the consent of the Spiritual Director.

In other words, in all decisions apart from changing the constitution, it is possible, although difficult, to go against the will of the abbot. But in changing the constitution itself, this is not possible. It is locked in place without any checks and balances. The abbot, once appointed, cannot be removed by the lay community; and the constitutional changes that would allow this to happen cannot be made without his consent.

This comes back to the question of the nuns, which I earlier put aside. The ATBA constitution does not mention bhikkhunis, no doubt deliberately. It does allow that nuns follow ‘at least’ the ten samaneri precepts, so presumably this is worded to allow bhikkhunis to stay. However, the resident Sangha is defined as bhikkhus and siladhara. Once again, this is locking the thing up in the WPP tradition, or more narrowly, the Amaravati circle, since the siladhara are not really accepted as part of WPP. (The formal definition of ‘monastics’ issued by WPP includes anagarikas and mae chi, but excludes siladharas). So, only the dwindling few siladharas, who by their very position have been forced to formally sign an acceptance of their subservience to the bhikkhus, may be part of the resident Sangha. Bhikkhunis might, perhaps, be allowed to visit, but can never be a meaningful part of the community. Once again, the sectarian position, as invented by a few monks in England in the eighties, triumphs, and the Dhamma-vinaya of the Buddha is ignored.

The new constitution of the ATBA is based on an absolutist power structure. Such structures are always wrong for a monastery. When I arrived at Santi, our constitution had a similarly absolutist structure, and we changed it to create a balance of power.

My reading of the situation is that the western leaders of WPP know very well that they can no longer rely on their spiritual leadership to attract and maintain students. They have created an ideology that is sexist and discriminatory, and which goes against the values of the society in which they live. With the retirement of Ajahn Sumedho, and the aging and fragile health of LP Liem, the future of the order is very much in doubt. Now is the time to take formal legal control of resources, especially land and property, to ensure that their own sectarian movement can continue indefinitely.

For a student of history, this is fascinating stuff: we are seeing the forces that have shaped religious institutionalization happening before our very eyes. For a practitioner of Dhamma, however, it is sad to see. The monasteries that should be for the ‘Sangha of the four quarters’ are being locked away for the use of one narrowly-defined group.

On “Sex and the Sangha” and the displacement of pain

I’ve just had a read of the excellent blog post on “Sex and the Sangha:Forgiveness, Retribution or Justice” by NellaLou. If you haven’t seen it yet, go and have a read; I’ll have a cuppa and see you in a minute.

Welcome back!

It’s fascinating how she is dealing with very different issues than we have faced directly in the forest tradition. If there’s one thing the Ajahn Chah tradition is renowned for its sexual propriety, and there is no hint of a scandal around these issues. And yet when i read the description of the very many avoidance methods that are used in discussion, I was struck by how many of them are identical. I won’t go over these, as many of them have been mentioned earlier in this blog, but would simply reiterate that such means of dialogue are painfully transparent attempts to avoid the issue.

Which, right now, is discrimination. The Five Points, authored by Ven Pannasaro at the request of Ajahn Sumedho and adopted by the male Ajahns of the Wat Pa Pong tradition in order to suppress its few remaining nuns, remain in force. The Five Points make explicit the power-based discrimination that has characterized that community for many years, and are a public expression of contempt for notions of equality and democracy, which are fundamental to the Buddha’s ethics and his principles for constructing community.

A part of the American Zen community has been struggling with its own problem, the sexual involvement of students with teachers. I don’t want to go too much into that in detail here, but simply to notice that this issue is closely connected with patriarchy. Most of the teachers are male, and the sex is invariably a part of the very unequal power relations of the (usually male) teacher and the (usually female) student.

Astonishingly, some of the women quoted in “Sex and the Sangha” appear to be saying that it’s okay to sleep your way to the top of the spiritual hierarchy – a hierarchy whose “top” and “bottom” have been defined by men, for men. Not something that happens in Wat Pa Pong circles; but it is not hard to find women who through gifts of money, food, and other requisites, seek a special relationship with monks; and to preserve that special status they will side with the monks against equality for women. As Carol Gilligan said, patriarchy divides men against women, and women against each other.

When I was thinking about the similarities and differences between the situations in discussed in “Sex and the Sangha” and WPP, i wondered what the implications might be. It is simplistic to argue that ‘going celibate’ will remove the sex problem, as we all know from the rampant sex scandals among priests. Nor is it enough to say that abolishing celibacy will solve the problems of sexism.

At the end of the day, the issue is not celibacy, but patriarchy: the assumption of power by men, solely by virtue of their gender. As long as patriarchy persists in Buddhism, women will be disempowered and de-voiced, and will survive and flourish solely at the whim of the men. Power corrupts; and it is perhaps not so important that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that even tiny power corrupts tinyly, as shown so terribly in the Stanford Cookie Experiment. (More properly: ‘Power, approach, and inhibition.‘ Keltner, Dacher; Gruenfeld, Deborah H.; Anderson, Cameron. Psychological Review, Vol 110(2), Apr 2003, 265-284.) Here’s a summary of the experiment from the Harvard Business Review:

To appreciate the first half of the dynamic—that bosses tend to be oblivious to their followers’ perspectives—consider the “cookie experiment” reported by the psychologists Dacher Keltner, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson in 2003. In this study, teams of three students each were instructed to produce a short policy paper. Two members of each team were randomly assigned to write the paper. The third member evaluated it and determined how much the other two would be paid, in effect making them subordinates. About 30 minutes into the meeting, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies—a welcome break that was in fact the focus of the experiment. No one was expected to reach for the last cookie on the plate, and no one did. Basic manners dictate such restraint. But what of the fourth cookie—the extra one that could be taken without negotiation or an awkward moment? It turns out that a little taste of power has a substantial effect. The “bosses” not only tended to take the fourth cookie but also displayed signs of “disinhibited” eating, chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs widely.

It’s a cute little experiment, but it beautifully illustrates a finding consistent across many studies. When people—independent of personality—wield power, their ability to lord it over others causes them to (1) become more focused on their own needs and wants; (2) become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and (3) act as if written and unwritten rules that others are expected to follow don’t apply to them. To make matters worse, many bosses suffer a related form of power poisoning: They believe that they are aware of every important development in the organization (even when they are remarkably ignorant of key facts). This affliction is called “the fallacy of centrality”—the assumption that because one holds a central position, one automatically knows everything necessary to exercise effective leadership.

In the examples given in “Sex and the Sangha” from the American Zen sphere, the dark side of this power corruption is expressed as sexual predation. I wonder how this same energy is displaced in the WPP tradition, where sex is ruled out? Obviously, there are many details here in terms of the day-to-day relations between monks and nuns. We have heard the voices of some of the women concerned, so I will not repeat that here.

What does strike me is how the pain that this discrimination causes is displaced outside the narrowly defined community so that it may be safely ignored.

A small example: many years ago, i was hitch-hiking my way north from Sydney to Townsville. A truckie kindly stopped to pick me up and take me the next stage of my journey. While i was sitting there, I had a carton of juice. I asked the truckie, ‘Where’s your rubbish bin?’; he took the carton, wound down the window and threw it out, saying, ‘That’s my rubbish bin.’

Stop right there: see what’s happening. There’s a boundary, between the inside of the cab (‘mine’) and the outside (‘not-mine’). The driver’s sphere of moral concern stops right there, at the boundary. Rubbish inside the cab is a problem; rubbish outside the cab is no problem at all.

So why then did he stop to pick me up? If he is purely selfishly motivated, then why take the trouble to help another person? Who knows? It could have been boredom; perhaps he thought I might share some pot or something with him. But more to the point, no-one is completely selfish. We make constructs in our minds, and those constructs (‘views’) guide where our sphere of concern lies. Perhaps, in those many hours of driving the endless Australian roads, he had ruminated over and over on the chaos of the streets, the selfishness of other drivers, and had become disconnected from that space. Offering someone a lift might, in fact, be a subconscious attempt to reconnect, to find some humanity worth caring for.

But speculation on motives is not really my point here; it’s about how we displace suffering, shifting the cost of our actions outside our cognizance so we can ignore consequences.

It seems to me that the same phenomenon is even more evident on a larger scale, where it is easier to disconnect from lived humanity. Developed countries like Australia maintain their extravagant lifestyles by using the resources and labor of the poor in other countries, a legacy of colonialism. We can afford good consumer goods, huge houses, and crucially, education by virtue of our high incomes, while those in less developed countries struggle to get even the basics. While we think of ourselves as generous benefactors who donate freely to charities, the reality is that the world economy acts as a giant the net ‘hoover‘, sucking wealth out of poorer countries into the rich.

The disastrous side-effects of our untrammeled economic growth are exported as ‘externalities‘: pollution, resource depletion, labor exploitation and the like are (largely) created in the developed world and (largely) experienced in the undeveloped world. The western world only becomes concerned in cases such as the Global Financial Crisis or the oil spill when the developed world experiences, for a short time and a lesser degree, the suffering that much of the rest of the world takes for granted every day.

Why do they put up with it? Because, obviously, they are disempowered and de-voiced. The rich control the instruments of ideology and education. We create the problem, but do not have to deal with it. We define ourselves as ‘free’, ‘democratic’, ‘advanced’, and throw the problem away somewhere ‘other’.

It seems to me a similar thing is happening in the discriminatory policies of the Sangha. The male Sangha do not have to deal with the problems of women. The Sangha defines itself as ‘virtuous’, authentic’, ‘tradition’. Women are shut outside; they are other. They can be generically dismissed by waving that magic wand wielded by the Masters of Doctrine: “It’s their kamma”.

But the suffering of women does not arise in a vacuum. It is no coincidence that Thailand has perhaps the worlds biggest and most voracious sex trade, including the slavery of young girls, and that the Sangha is so adamantly male only. The massive, extremely destructive effects of Thailand’s sex trade – the lives destroyed, the AIDS, the flourishing of organized crime, and so on – are outside the sphere of moral concern of monks. In six years living in Thailand, I never once heard a monk referring to it in a teaching.

The Sangha patriarchy has been an instrument for depriving women of power, control, voice. The inevitable result of that powerlessness is the sexual exploitation of women by men. Due to its vows of celibacy, that exploitation is not carried out by the Sangha itself (at least for those sections of the Sangha that still respect the vows), but by other men, emboldened by the moral authority of masculinity. And yet, even though it is externalized, it is no less real; in fact, I would say it is worse.

In the sexual problems described in some Zen communities, at the least the people meet face to face. The problem can be denied and shunted away, but it is still there. Similarly for poverty and pollution that happens in our own backyard: it’s still wrong and maybe we can’t change it, but at least we know it’s there.

But when we create structures of dominance and submission, insisting that gender be the moral arbiter of relationships, and then export that outside our communities, using our control of ideology (the dismissal of human rights and equality) to deny its existence; then we can live our lives in truly blissful ignorance of the suffering we have contributed to.

Shoppers in a Mosman mall, bedazzled by the surfaces, rarely pause to think of where all this stuff comes from, and how it impacts the lives of others. Monks in a patriarchal Sangha, idolized and idealized, worshiped by women for their power of renunciation, rarely pause to think of how their insistence on women’s submission might affect the very real suffering of women in developing countries.

When senior monastic teachers such as Ajahn Sumedho in the West say things like, ‘Human rights are outside of the Dhamma’, do not think such sayings disappear in a vacuum. Ajahn Sumedho is a powerful, respected public figure in Thailand, and any sayings like this will be taken very seriously and literally: ‘Ajahn Sumedho says that human rights are outside the Dhamma…’. This is how the thinking flows, among the influential circles who regard Ajahn Sumedho and the WPP tradition as the prime exemplars for introducing a successful Sangha into the west. ‘Even the monks in the west don’t believe in bhikkhuni ordination. They know it’s necessary to keep nuns subservient. And not just the monks: the lay people still look up to them as teachers. See, they’re still inviting the Ajahns who support the five Points to teach at their centers; they still support them. It must be the right thing to do…’

And so it goes. The words, the teachings issued from the pulpit, and even more important, the principles embodied in daily monastic life, have always been the moral standard for Buddhist countries. The reality is that most people don’t think very clearly or independently on moral issues. They follow the leader. A strong and clear anti-equality message from on high contributes to a moral climate where meaningful change in areas of major concern for women such as sex slavery and domestic violence remains impossible.

We drink the juice, and then toss the rubbish outside the cab.

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.

The Time Has Come

Here’s a very important new article on bhikkhuni ordination, called The Time Has Come. To which I cannot help but add: a fact’s a fact.

It’s by three ex-nuns, Thanissara, Jitindriya, and Elizabeth Day (Cintamani), and will be appearing in The Buddhadharma in a few days. The article spells out clearly and straightforwardly the issues that have arisen since the Perth ordinations. It deals with the ordinations, Ajahn Brahm’s expulsion, the responses of the siladharas, the five points, and the nature of institutionalized sexism. As well as the main article, there are substantial contributions by Janet Gyatso, on the historical heritage of the garudhammas, and Llundup Damcho (Diana Finnegan) on the situation in the Tibetan Sangha.

The authors ask:

What would it look like to relocate the ‘problem’ of bhikkhuni ordination and gender equity within Buddhism to where it really belongs? … with those who fear women’s full participation.

The time really is here. How long must we be ‘patient’? It takes an hour, tops, to perform a bhikkhuni ordination that would satisfy every Vinaya requirement. But we’ll be waiting for Maitreya Buddha if we want to satisfy the requirements of the ‘Walters’, the hyper-conservative monks who oppose bhikkhuni ordination on principle.

The opposition has gone back underground now, where it has festered for the past decades. Senior Ajahns in England opine that the gender issue cloud will simply pass in time. Keep the conversation under wraps and gender equity will be just like a bad dream. (I have previously mentioned that in Amaravati, this and other websites that support bhikkhunis were blocked; apparently this is no longer the case.)

But the opposition is no less active for being hidden. In Thailand, the Western monk Ajahn Nyanadhammo has done his best to persuade Bhante Gunaratana to reverse his long standing support for bhikkhunis.

Ajahn Brahm has been excluded from this year’s UN Vesak because of the ordinations, after having had a presentation already accepted. A group of bhikkhunis, on the other hand, will attend the occasion, being encouraged to do so by a number of senior Thai monks.

The opposition will not appear in public, and will at all costs avoid a debate. Those who oppose bhikkhunis, with a few refreshing exceptions, will not even admit the plain fact that they are in opposition. Silence is their friend.

On the other hand, we supporters of bhikkhunis are happy to say what we say in public, to participate in an open dialogue. Today I’m on my way to the ABC studios in Sydney, where we’ll do an interview for John Cleary’s Sunday night radio program; the interview is on the upcoming Buddhist Film Festival, where bhikkhuni ordination is a major theme.

We’ve got to keep talking, to keep the dialogue alive, keep the issue in people’s minds.

Change is with us already.

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.