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.

Bhikkhuni Ordination at Spirit Rock

Better late than never. After being one of the most vocal supporters of bhikkhuni ordination, I unaccountably omitted blogging about the recent bhikkhuni ordination at Spirit Rock, California. My apologies to all, I beg the Triple Gem of excuses: busyness, disorganizationedness, and illness (a bout of flu hit Santi a month ago – yes, we’re all recovering, thanks!).

On October 17, three nuns took full ordination: Venerables Anandabodhi, Santacitta, and Nimmala. Congratulations to all those who took part, and especially to the three new bhikkhunis!

Venerables Anandabodi, Santacitta, and Nimmala receive full ordination

You can see details of the ordination here, photos here, messages from the nuns and the community here, and watch the video slideshow below.

Also, check out the film project on bhikkhuni ordination by Wiriya and Katrina – we’ll keep you posted as this develops.

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.

The Autobiography of Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana

I just found in the BSWA library a fascinating little book, the English translation of the autobiography of Vajiranana. (Autobiography: The Life of Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana. Ed & trans Craig J Reynolds, Ohio University, 1979.)

He was one of the very many sons of King Mongkut, and following on from Mongkut’s modernist tendencies, was perhaps the single greatest reformer in modern Thai Buddhism. His autobiography, one of the first of its kind in Thai literature, is brief, honest, and refreshingly candid, although it only covers the period of his early life, up to the first few years as a monk. The English edition is excellent, with a detailed introduction and very useful notes.

What comes across most strikingly is Vajiranana’s constant effort to balance the Dhamma and his duties and temptations as a prince. He details at length his period of decadence as a young man, with gambling and overspending, although he confesses he was a failure at being a drunkard and was never attracted to women. This period is interesting, although it follows an edifying formula, paralleling Siddhattha’s early life, and has a clear literary purpose in contrasting with his reform as he discovered Buddhism.

What is interesting, though, is that this reform happened not through an encounter with a monk or Buddhist teachings, but through his Scottish teacher, Dr Peter Gowan, who lived “like an Indian rishi” and who, among other things, persuaded Vajiranana to give up smoking. It’s fascinating to see how the east and west were closely intertwined even in those days, as Vajiranana repeatedly says how much he liked European ways, and says again and again that he did things just because they were European, whether good or bad. He makes explicit connections between the Sangha hierarchy and western religious forms, saying that the rank of chao khana is equivalent to the Church of England’s Bishop.

In addition to his encounters with Gowan, and of course with the various monks who he knew, his defining moment of dispassion came when he saw that a table that he had bought, and which he thought was so lovely, was in fact fairly cheaply made, and coming apart. This little observation turned him off materialism forever – a realistic psychological detail.

Vajiranana didn’t seem to have a very positive view of women, and saw one of the benefits of his initial stay in the monastery as a novice in his young teens very much in terms of the traditional process of an initiation into the men’s circle. It was the tradition that young princes would live in the Inner Palace among the Palace women until they ordained as novices around age 14, after which they would not return to the Inner Palace. Vajiranana says (p. 9) that he was happy to be in the monastery as:

‘the talk of women had no wit’… ‘Living at the monastery was beneficial in rapidly making my sensibilities and mannerisms more masculine, although in my subsequent residence there as a novice I tended to acquire less intrepid, feminine mannerisms.’

In his later teens he began to seriously study and reflect on the teachings. He was particularly struck by the Kalama Sutta ‘which taught one not to believe blindly and to depend on one’s own thinking.’ This was in the late 1800s, and he apparently noticed this sutta, which has come to define modernist Buddhism, by himself. Like King Mongkut before him, he took a sceptical attitude towards the miraculous events described in the texts, deciding, for example, that the attack by the army of Mara could not be true. But he says that he lacked the Pali expertise at the time to carefully investigate such cases, merely making up his mind and rejecting what he didn’t like. Only later did he come to realize that such teachings could be interpreted in an allegorical sense. He was not alone in taking such an inquiring attitude, for he remarks that:

After hearing senior monks object to certain passages I learned to make up my own mind, to select those passages which were acceptable to me and to reject, as if sifting out gold from the sand, those which were unacceptable…

Vajiranana refers to his strong temper, and while his autobiography is quite restrained and generous-spirited, he shows a degree of impatience for narrow-minded or overly ritualistic monks. He praises his teacher Brahmamuni, as “he did not have the narrow mindedness typical of a monk who thinks of himself as orthodox.” He writes critically of the dispute in his time between the ‘water’ monks and the ‘land’ monks – those who were ordained in a water sima were considered more pure than those ordained on land. He says, “Pious laywomen of that school fluttered about praising the ‘water monks’ and disparaging the ‘land monks’…”

Throughout, there is precisely no emphasis on any of the higher teachings. No meditation, no deep philosophy, no liberation, no Nibbana. When he mentions the benefits he has received from his Dhamma study, they are all very limited, worldly concerns.

In this regard, the forest tradition has surely made an incalculable contribution, by placing meditation and liberation where they should be, at the heart. Yet in their dismissal of study, the forest tradition has forgotten how much they owe to reformers such as Vajiranana. Without such scholars, there would be no critical study of Buddhist texts, no understanding of how the Pali suttas are the most authentic teachings of the Buddha, and subsequently no understanding of the central role of meditation in liberation. While forest tradition monks rely, usually unconsciously, on the reforms brought about with such effort by Vajiranana and his generation, too many of them have lost the spirit of inquiry that illuminates this period of Thai Buddhist reform. Now, the idea that one can investigate the teachings and make up one’s own mind is regarded as a formal heresy (ditthivipatti). Modern Thai Buddhism was formed on the basis that the Vinaya is the authority, not the opinions of the teachers (acariyavada). For much of the modern forest tradition, sadly, the opinions of the teachers has become all that matters, and recourse to the Dhamma and Vinaya of the Buddha is dismissed out of hand.

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.

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.