Buddhist Fury

Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand

Michael K. Jerryson

Thanks to Annie for bringing this to my attention. This is a study of the religious and social context of the ongoing violence in Southern Thailand between Thai Buddhists and ethnically Malay Muslims. You can read the introduction on Google books. It looks like an excellent study, based on extensive personal interviews over several years.

The conflict in southern Thailand has been a dreadful one, with over 3000 dead and no signs of stopping. It provides an example of how the Buddhist philosophy of peace works in real-world contexts of violence.

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.

Turns of events

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

Has anything got better?

Short answer: not so you’d notice.

Long answer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Can a nun manage a temple?

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

From Buddhist Channel —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NUNS IN THAILAND: BETWEEN TWO REALMS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THAI TEMPLES IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.