The Problem with Nuns…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 reasons why 2012 is looking good!

The new year is upon us – and a very merry one for all sentient beings!

The doom-mongers will be out in force this year, so let me, as a died-in-the-wool contrarian, offer 10 reasons why 2012 is shaping up to be a great year.

  • EU is banning factory hens. Ok, that may be a bit overstated, as they are just being allowed some extra space and some other welfare provisions; and there will always be compliance issues, but hey, it’s a start. And provisions for the welfare of other farmed animals is following in the next few years. The appallingly cruel development of factory farming is one of the most vile products of technology, and its end cannot come too soon.
  • Bhikkhunis keep on happening. We have seen the ending of Wat Pa Pong’s policy of banning monks from Bodhinyana who had participated in bhikkhuni ordination. Next year there will be a large scale bhikkhuni ordination in Vesali. While in Malaysia, I heard many hopeful things about the setting up of a new centre there. Through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, I heard words of encouragement, gratitude, and support for the bhikkhunis. There’s over 1000 bhikkhunis now in Sri Lanka, and this is just the beginning.
  • Troops are getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not unproblematic, of course, but surely the only thing that can possibly work in the long term. Perhaps in the future our beloved leaders might reflect first on whether invading foreign countries is the most effective way of making them love democracy and freedom.
  • Kids TV show Waybuloo has got yoga and other cool stuff. Aww! Cute characters be nice to each other, share hugs and grow flowers, and float when they get happy, which is lots! It must be good, ‘cos the fundamentalists hate it.
  • After the Year of the Protestor, what happens next? From the Arab Spring to Occupy, people got out on the streets, almost always peacefully, and said, ‘Enough!’ the struggle for freedom, peace, equality and all good things is very far from over, but it is happening. A couple of years ago, who would have guessed? And what will the outcome be for the next year? Since we know that non-violent protest movements are far more successful than violent ones, I think there is a good chance that at least some of the progress will stick.
  • Fundamentalism is dead. Alright, not dead yet. But dying. Maybe not dying, but still. Pining for the fjords, at least. The unstoppable wave of ignorance and stupidity in the name of ‘religion’, which dominated global events from the time of 9/11, seems to be on the wane. The Arab Spring and other major shifts, including climate change, are driven by other concerns. The Tea Party candidates are dropping out of the US elections; it seems there is a limit to the lunacy that democracies will tolerate. We might even see a drift back to sanity-based politics. Hopefully this will accompany a more healthy relationship between religion and science.
  • Technology catches up on global warming. Even though the political response to the global warming crisis has been an almost unmitigated failure, technology is at least making some headway. This map shows how soon there will be cost parity between solar and current electricity generation in the US. Parity arrives in San Diego in 2014, according to their calculations. For more info, check out The Futuremakers, a great doco on emerging energy technologies by my old friend Maryella Hatfield.
  • More people are meditating than ever before. At least in the US: “A 2007 national Government survey that asked about CAM use in a sample of 23,393 U.S. adults found that 9.4 percent of respondents (representing more than 20 million people) had used meditation in the past 12 months—compared with 7.6 percent of respondents (representing more than 15 million people) in a similar survey conducted in 2002.” That’s nearly 25% increase in 5 years. The growth of meditation worldwide is perhaps the most significant thing ever in the history of humanity. For the first time, a large percentage of people, of all nationalities and religions, and in all kinds of settings, are consciously and deliberately making efforts to purify and expand their consciousness. No-one knows what the possible outcomes of this will be – but it will be more than just a little short term stress reduction.
  • Violence continues to decline. We have discussed Steven Pinker’s argument that violence is, on the whole, in decline. He continues to make his case, and statistics argue in favor of many of his key points. For example, homicide rates worldwide continue to decline. here’s hoping that 2012 will be humanity’s most peaceful ever.
  • The prophets will be wrong, again! Here’s counting down to Dec 20, 2012, when the world is going to end and all the usual yada yada. Me, I’ll be kicking back here at Santi with a lovely cup of coffee and a nice ‘told you so’. You’re welcome to join!

So there’s ten. What other great things can we look forward to in 2012?

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.

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.”

A Further Note on Monastery Constitutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, brahmin, there is not.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monastery Constitutions

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

Or not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Causing Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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