Sexism, Andocentrism, Misogyny

For this post I’d like to examine a little more closely some of the issue around the problem of discrimination against women in the Sangha. This is a hard topic, and there will be much inner resistance to accepting my conclusions here. All I can ask is that the reader be aware of their own responses, and to reflect that the writer, too, has dealt with similar responses over many years in working with these issues. For this piece, I will concentrate on the ‘normal’ form of sexism, where it is men who discriminate against women.


First up, what is ‘sexism’? I would give the following definition: sexism is irrelevant or disproportional discrimination against a person based on their gender. Sexism is by definition wrong, since it harms women by depriving them of their full humanity. In a more subtle sense, sexism harms men too, since men’s sense of security is maintained by harming the ones they love.

To illustrate. The Buddha said that one should not judge a person by whatever caste they belong to: whether khattiya, brahman, vessa, or sudda, a person should be judged by their deeds, not by their birth. In the same way, one should not judge or discriminate against a person simply because of their gender. As bhikkhuni Somā said: ‘Anything who thinks “I am a man”, or “I am a woman”, or “I am anything at all” is fit for Māra to address.’ (Samyutta Nikaya 5.2). In the early Buddhist scriptures it is Māra who espouses sexist views, not the Buddha.

There are certain cases where it is quite proper to discriminate. For example, it is a valid question to ask whether a pregnant woman should receive maternity leave from her work. The same question could not be asked of a man. Of course, a man might receive paternity leave, but that is a different matter. In such a case, to grant maternity leave to pregnant women would be discrimination based on relevant grounds and would not be unethical.

There would still remain the question of proportionality. How much leave, and under what conditions? There is no clear cut answer to this. However, anyone would agree that one day is too little, while forty years would be too much. These options, while relevant discrimination, would be rejected as being disproportional.

In this sense, the structural position of the Theravadin Sangha is clearly sexist. There is no relevant grounds for discrimination. The Buddha, and the entire tradition, asserts that women are equally capable of living the holy life and reaping the fruits. Nor is there any proportion in the Sangha’s response. The details of legal procedures, the reluctance to change traditions, are no adequate grounds on which to deny women their capacity to fully live the spiritual life if they so choose.

I would like to make a further distinction. Sexism may be divided into two aspects: andocentrism and misogyny.


Andocentrism is seeing things from a male point of view. Our language embodies this, for example, when we use ‘he’ or ‘man’ to refer to all people, not noticing how this excludes and marginalizes women. Andocentric culture treats the male as the default gender, and woman is the ‘other’. In an andocentric system, women are excluded from resources, education, opportunities that are routinely available to men. This may happen simply through social conditioning, or it may have to be reinforced by rules and laws.

We often judge how andocentric an institution is by what percentage of women are involved, and what positions they reach. By this standard, the modern Theravada Sangha is one of the most absolute forms of andocentrism ever achieved, with a complete denial of women’s involvement at any level.

Since andocentrism is essentially a social construct, it must be changed through social means. This social change will, in the first instance, be driven by those who suffer most from sexism, that is, the women. Like Mahapajapati, who disobeyed the Buddha’s instructions, repeatedly ignored his advice, and dressed in the ochre robes without an ordination, women will have to disobey the patriarchs if they expect to achieve change. Successful change will, however, also need the help of the patriarchs themselves, in this case the monks.

I would suggest that there are three essential things that the monks must do. First, admit that sexism exists and that it is wrong. Second, work energetically to overcome sexism. Third, to listen and respond to the voices of women. This is, I think, all it takes. It is not impossible. It does not involve any complex moral issues or radical new innovations. It just requires the application of some good moral sense to address an obvious and harmful injustice in the world.


Whereas andocentrism is primarily a social phenomenon, and is defined by the absence of women, misogyny is a psychological phenomenon, defined by the presence of hatred against women. Misogyny is a neurosis, a deeply held pattern of irrational fear and loathing against women. Typically it develops in response to trauma involving a woman, either in infancy or, from a Buddhist perspective, in past lives. The trauma may be the result of the evil acts of a woman, for example if a mother abuses her son, or the woman may be entirely innocent, for example if a son conceives a jealous hatred of a newly-born sister.

The essential characteristic of misogyny is that it takes the perceived faults and the evil of one woman and projects that on all women. Of course, we all do this; projection is a simple fact of human psychology. We have all had good and bad experiences of men and women, and these condition our future expectations and thoughts of other men and women. This is normal; but when the pattern becomes fixed and extreme, and when it results in harmful patterns of behaviour, then it is appropriate to treat it as a neurosis. Since we experience the opposite gender as ‘other’, projection plays a particularly potent role in inter-gender relations.

This kind of tendency is found through the Buddhist literature, for example the Jātaka stories. Whenever a man does something bad, or a woman does something good, that man or that woman is praised or blamed accordingly. But when a woman does something ‘bad’ (even when it is the man who has acted immorally) then ‘womankind’ is blamed. The Jātaka stories, and other forms of popular Buddhist literature, are replete with misogyny. It is frankly impossible that these attitudes should simply disappear from Buddhist culture, which prides itself on its continuity with tradition.

A man who is suffering from misogyny is cut off and alienated from a part of himself. He cannot accept the feminine, and denies and represses this aspect of himself. This affirms a basic tenet of Buddhist ethics: since all beings are equally deserving of respect, when any person harms or diminishes any being they also harm themselves.

Misogyny is a subtle and elusive thing. Our society no longer tolerates open expressions of misogyny, and so it tends to go underground. One can hear it in the relaxed, private ‘boy’s talk’, but it rarely emerges in the sphere of public discourse. And of course, the misogynist is the last person to see their own prejudice.

Nevertheless, I think it is clear enough that a certain percentage of men are misogynist in the sense I have described. And of those men, a certain percentage will enter the Sangha. It is only natural that a misogynist will seek to enter a context where his exclusive valorization of the masculine is supported, where he need rarely encounter women, and when he does encounter women they are contained within a hierarchy that subordinates them, gives them no power, lets him dismiss their voices, and exalts him as a being of superior spiritual status.

It may come as a shock to hear that some Sangha members are of questionable mental balance. Nevertheless, it is really quite obvious. Here I will speak only of the Western Sangha. In traditional Buddhist lands, there is a strong cultural support for men who wish to join the Sangha. Hence, in my experience, there is no particular tendency for the monks to be either personally misogynist, or to have any other mental problems more than is normal. In Western Buddhism, however, most people are drawn to it only after experiencing deep trauma. In any Western Buddhist center, you will find a large number of people who have had, or are having, severe psychological difficulties. That is why they come.

And for those who wish to join the Sangha this is even more noticeable. I would guess that more than half of those who are interested to join the monastic Sangha, in my experience, have some kind of clinical level psychological or personality disorder. Many of these disorders make it difficult to live the holy life: schizophrenia, depression, anxiety. People with such problems tend to not last in the Sangha.

But there are certain kinds of disorders that are positively nurtured by the monastic environment, in particular narcissism and misogyny. As far as narcissism goes, the history of Western Buddhism is littered with the trainwrecks of unrestrained guru-worship. Misogyny has not been so obvious, as it has been sheltered by the assumed legitimacy of the andocentric Sangha structures.

It should be clear enough that misogynists would normally be drawn to andocentric institutions like the Sangha. They would tend to reinforce the bias that is already present, to make it more extreme, and to actively, if unconsciously, seek to harm women through their position. In return, we would expect that the andocentric institution would tend to reinforce misogyny, justifying it, activating latent misogyny, offering role models and the bonding that comes in a boy’s club, and turning a man’s basest instincts into an exalted spiritual value.

Nevertheless, this might not always happen. The personal problem of misogyny and the institutional problem of andocentrism are relatively independent. It is possible, for example, to have an andocentric institution that does not contain any misogynists, or to have a misogynist who is independent of any institution. When a misogynist does join the institution, it may result in a variety of effects.

For example, more blatant displays of misogyny might alert the other members of the institution; they might be personally disgusted, and this might bring them to reflect of the role that they are playing within the institution, and to want to do something about it. I know this happens: it is what happened to me.

On the other hand, a misogynist might join the Sangha. On the surface they embrace the values of the Sangha and are practising for liberation; underneath they are fearful and damaged, needing a place to hide from women. But healing takes place, sometimes time is all that’s needed. The isolation and protection from women might actually be beneficial for someone who is genuinely unable to cope. After a while, they develop more stability and confidence. The original unconscious motivation for ordination has died away, and they might disrobe, get married, and enjoy a healthy normal relationship with women, which was not possible for them before joining the Sangha.

The crux of the problem comes when the andocentric institution and the misogynist ally forces. This occurs especially when the misogynist comes into a position of power. Of course, this is exactly what they want. They can build up the walls, continually reinforce the separation from women, and help condition new generations of monks to affirm and perpetuate the old patterns. In the long term, all this will not help the misogynist at all. They are simply exaggerating their original problem, and when the day comes that the walls tumble down, they will crash all the harder.

The problem here lies not with the individual, but with the Sangha. Since the Sangha as an institution is still in denial over the problem of sexism, it refuses to recognize misogyny, and is quite happy to place misogynists in positions of power. Once there, the ‘normal’ institutional practice of simply ignoring, marginalizing, and excluding women will extend to an active suppression.

One problem that arises here is that there have to be women present to fulfil the misogynist fantasy. Women must be attracted to the monasteries, gratified and supported, so that they can stay and be abused. If there are no women in the monasteries, how can they be kept in the kitchen? This is a translation into a spiritual setting of the same dynamic that perpetuates abusive marriages.

The Future

The problems that I am bringing to the fore in this essay are painful and uncomfortable ones. They are not easy to accept, even though they are really quite straightforward. I have struggled with these issues for many years, and am grateful that the current bhikkhuni controversy has cleared the air, making me feel that I can speak openly about issues of such grave importance.

The facts are undeniable. The modern Theravadin Sangha is an absolutist form of andocentric institution. The Buddhist tradition, for example the Jātaka stories, contain abundant misogyny. These tendencies will continue until there is an active effort to overcome them. When we see within the Sangha a consistent deconstruction of these forms of sexism; a recognition of the value of women’s voices in shaping our future; and an active effort to dismantle and reshape the modern forms of the Sangha institutions, relying on the egalitarian model of the Vinaya; then we will have reason to believe that things may change.

Until that time, we can expect that good men and women all over the world will turn away from Buddhism, be disillusioned with the Sangha, and doubt the value of Dhamma practice. As the Buddha said to the Kalamas: ‘You are doubting in a doubtful matter’.


Another Siladhara speaks

Please find below some reflections from Sister Sumedha, one of the siladharas in the English Sangha.

“To echo something that was said earlier (I think on Sujato’s blog) I am amazed at the level of fear, denial, almost soporific group trance that the UK monasteries seem to be in the sway of.

I feel that our role as concerned, observant lay people is to try and wake monastics up to what is happening in their name”

When I read this in the ongoing discussion on the web I felt a strong need – as a woman living in the UK communities for over a decade – to write a response.

What I want to say is: I am not asleep to what is happening. I applaud the current unfurling of the complexities and denials that are active in our community life. The issue for me is not just one of gender equality or democracy, though those are important results that come from a heart that is genuinely open and something I very much wish to see. This, to me, is rooted in a spiritual emergency.

The core of why I came here is this: I was deeply suffering but sensed, even more deeply, that in our very nature is the capacity to awaken. Hearing the Buddha’s teaching on non – clinging brought a light which has helped an inner perspective to grow. Where is the heart closed, where is there fear, need to control, protect, hide etc? Learning to let this light flow and be active – to bring its power to transform into real, living life – this is the human/spiritual journey as I see… My experience shows it does bring space for wisdom, love, and compassion to shine. From our nature – all of us.

To have been able to ordain was in effect making an outer commitment to this inner capacity to awaken. Tradition, a vehicle. Living in a place where I felt a shared aspiration has been profoundly helpful. Having a community, teachings, living as an alms mendicant, have nourished me beyond words. I want to see that openly and fully available for anyone to whom it is beneficial, as the Buddha intended.

In these ways I respect the place of teachers, of tradition and of training.

But any aspect that has become institutionalised can cut rather than celebrate this awakening life. In everyone: those that apparently hold power as much as those who apparently don’t. Whatever spiritual authority comes through our forms, if it is true, belongs to no-one, and everyone, so when the form takes hold of it – in rigid hierarchies or whatever – we are lost.

Structure/freedom, solitude/engagement, accepting teachings/knowing one’s inner authority – these are some of the most wonderful and creative paradoxes we have. But when rigidity sets in, and uses liberation teachings and vinaya to justify its stance, the creative relationship with freedom is endangered (to say the least).

It is out of concern for this, as a monastic regarding the “what is happening in our name”, that I feel moved to write.

What I see happening in our name is spiritual justification of certain loyalties – to Thailand, to the lineage and whatever attitudes prevail in that family. Of course this has, in part, a genuine spiritual basis in terms of a lineage of teachers who have truly affected one’s life, and I respect that, I feel and honour it in myself.

But there is also a loyalty process that is more to do with the sense of family, with acceptance and, importantly, with support, social, political and financial. Examining family values is notoriously difficult; they get embedded. Without listening to outside feedback, without valuing it, without being willing to speak when timely and risk losing support, we just condition each other in certain attitudes – around hierarchy, gender, around what is or isn’t proper practice. And how then does one preserve an openness of view? How does practice connect to anything outside its own small world? What happens when one steps out – as is evident with Aj Brahm – is uproar…

Experiencing this kind of ‘world closure’ – ever more clearly – is heartbreaking. Truly heartbreaking when the Buddha’s teaching is such an open ground. I experience it as something like a betrayal of the beauty and potential that is within us all. Not defeating, but deeply deeply saddening and sobering.

Where it leaves me is with an ever firmer conviction that practice must be connected in our lives. That our work as monastics is not just to transcend the world – when anyway, even as renunciates, we live in it – but to acknowledge the drives of fear, anger, control, desire, human need – and not just play them out in our monastic forms. Then the vinaya could again become a vehicle that facilitates awakening rather than a model of purity that replaces the heart. Its a big task.

What nourishes me is that the model of practice that the Buddha established was not something static. 2500 years ago, in the social conditions of his time, the Buddha established ordination for women. The vinaya was established through a series of responses to specific situations. Responses. He also took conventions of purity and reestablished them in saying a Brahmin is not a Brahmin by birth alone but by deed. This was a fearless heart putting its wisdom and clarity into action. He was connecting practice in the world.

So, personally, I find the discussions and events unfolding crucially important. Questioning: issues of authority, how transcendence can become avoidance (so, integration), the importance of presence and embodiment…these are basic and pressing areas.

If, as someone said recently, these are areas of more ‘feminine’ insight, they are something the presence of women in and around this tradition can bring – and partly why we (and men who enter these arenas) seem to be so threatening. We are not the threat. It is that work that is the threat, but so important in terms of Dhamma.

Sr Sumedha

Ajahn Thanissaro’s letter on bhikkhunis

Thanks to those who posted the link to the collected set of essays responding to Ajahn Thanissaro’s letter, which attempted to find a Vinaya basis for refuting the recent bhikkhuni ordination. The responses are all good, and I agree with them completely.

One of the lovely things that emerges from this conflict has been the realization that there are many good people who understand the value of the Dhamma and Vinaya, and who have such a determined, intelligent, compassionate approach to implementing that in our complex times. It is particularly nice to see the bhikkhunis themselves stepping up and having their say. It is, after all, their lives.

I would like to just add a couple of small remarks here, which essentially make the same point from a slightly different angle. Some time ago I made a post on the Quarrel at Kosambi, where the Buddha gives ’18 points’ which should be used to evaluate the competing claims by parties at a disputation. Since this is explicitly the guide that Buddha says we should use in such cases, let’s have a quick look at Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument in the light of the 18 points. For easy reference, here are the 18 points again:

A teacher of non-Dhamma is one who:

teaches non-Dhamma as Dhamma and vice versa;
teaches non-Vinaya as Vinaya and vice versa;
teaches what was not spoken by the Buddha as being spoken by the Buddha, and vice versa;
teaches what was not practiced by the Buddha as being practiced by the Buddha, and vice versa;
teaches what was not laid down as a Vinaya rule by the Buddha as if it were laid down by the Buddha, and vice versa;
teaches what is no offence as an offence, and vice versa;
teaches a slight offence as a serious offence, and vice versa;
teaches a resolvable offence as unresolvable, and vice versa;
teaches a corrupt offence as not corrupt, and vice versa.

A teacher of Dhamma teaches the opposite of all these.

Let’s take these in groups.

[One] teaches non-Dhamma as Dhamma and vice versa;
teaches non-Vinaya as Vinaya and vice versa;

In this case, the Vinaya is clear enough: ordaining more than one bhikkhuni every two years is an offence requiring confession. This is the understanding that the ordination proceeded under, and all those who took part agreed that this minor rule, laid down in the context of an accommodation crisis, should not obstruct the establishment of the bhikkhuni Sangha. This is Dhamma and Vinaya in a very simple and straightforward sense. Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument, on the other hand, is based on principles that are not found anywhere in the Vinaya, but are the result of a complicated and, in my opinion, implausible chain of reasoning.

Ajahn Thanissaro argues that since the ordination resulted in the infraction of a minor rule, it is ‘not Vinaya’. But Vinaya is not a system of absolute black and whites, with immediate invalidation of anything that transgresses a minor rule. On the contrary, Vinaya, as laid down in the texts, is a highly flexible instrument, which clearly tries to be as reasonable and contextual as possible. If one acknowledges a minor fault and confesses it, that is Vinaya.

[One] teaches what was not spoken by the Buddha as being spoken by the Buddha, and vice versa;
teaches what was not practiced by the Buddha as being practiced by the Buddha, and vice versa;
teaches what was not laid down as a Vinaya rule by the Buddha as if it were laid down by the Buddha, and vice versa;

In this case the actions of the ordaining Sangha were based directly on the Pali text as it has come down. In this case, it is probably as close to the Buddha’s words as we are likely to find. Ajahn Thanissaro’s reasoning, on the other hand, is based on commentaries and the late Parivara, which are certainly not the Buddha’s words.

He also relies on a reading of a particular passage in the Mahavagga, which says that if a sanghakamma is done ‘apart from Dhamma, Vinaya, and the Buddha’s teaching’, it is ‘not a kamma’ and ‘should not be done’. Ajahn Thanissaro argues that since the ordination procedure itself involved the infraction of a Vinaya rule, it is ‘apart from Vinaya’ and hence is ‘not a kamma’.

The relevant passage (for which he gives the mistaken reference M 10.3.2 – it should be M 9.3.2) occurs in the Campeyyakkhandhaka. It is part of a highly legalistic series of permutations of applications of how to determine the validity of an act. The style is very Abhidhammic, and there is only the most casual of attempts to attribute the passage to the Buddha himself. No-one reading this could imagine it was literally spoken by the same Buddha who invited the Sangha to relinquish the ‘lesser and minor rules’. The permutation series is established on the entirely conventional assumption that the ‘group of six monks’ (a Vinaya trope for ‘the bad boys’) had performed a series of invalid sanghakammas. As usual, they were not content to do just one or two, but systematically worked through every kind of flawed procedure, being criticized at each turn. The context, and other appearances of the group of six, makes it very clear that these were monks without conscience or scruple, who disregarded every principle of the Dhamma in their pursuit of their own selfish interests. When the texts say they performed acts ‘apart from Vinaya, apart from Dhamma, apart from the Buddha’s teaching’, that is exactly what it means: they were outlaws, operating with no regard for the Buddha, Dhamma, or Sangha. This passage has nothing to do with the careful and scrupulous manner in which the Perth bhikkhuni ordinations were performed.

[One] teaches what is no offence as an offence, and vice versa;
teaches a slight offence as a serious offence, and vice versa;
teaches a resolvable offence as unresolvable, and vice versa;
teaches a corrupt offence as not corrupt, and vice versa.

The most important point to notice here is proportionality: while Vinaya inevitably involves a degree of formality and conventions, this is clearly recognized as such. The Vinaya is well aware of the difference between minor infractions of procedure, and things that will destroy the holy life. In this case, there is no question that the pācittiya offence is a minor one. The Pali Vinaya itself calls pācittiyas ‘minor’ (khuddaka). Yet this is now used, not merely to invalidate the ordination of the Dhammasara bhikkhunis – an act that has already caused harm and stress. It would invalidate the majority, if not all, of the bhikkhuni ordinations that have been performed in Sri Lanka, and perhaps the world. At a stroke, based on an obscure chain of reasoning derived from a minor rule, the female Sangha is wiped out. This is so disproportional that it beggars the imagination.

If i may be permitted to bring in a comparison with secular law, imagine a case where someone had just received Australian citizenship. For its own inscrutable reasons, the Government decides it doesn’t want this person to be a citizen, so it hires a hotshot lawyer to make the case. The lawyer investigates, and the only thing he can come up with is this. The citizenship procedure requires that the candidate sings the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. Yet, out of compassion, the custom had become for them to sing just three verses, not the whole thing. The lawyer argues that, while the law does not actually stipulate that the whole song must be sung, that much is implied in simply stating that it should be sung. The citizenship procedure itself states that the new citizen is to uphold the laws of Australia, yet she is breaking the law in the very act of taking the oath! While this might seem like a legalistic maneuver, our lawyer goes on, in fact the Australian nation is based on the rule of law, and compliance with this rule of law is demonstrated in respect for even minor procedures. There are certain other cases, he goes on, where a citizenship ceremony is indeed invalid if improper procedure is followed – for example, if a person does not state their name in the citizenship ceremony. If such cases are disallowed, then surely any other infraction should be disallowed. In adhering to the strict interpretation of the law here, we are acting out of compassion for the citizens of Australia, in making sure that only law abiding people become Australians. As a result of this finding, this person must be expelled from Australia; and, incidentally, thousands of others will also be expelled. They will become Stateless, their families broken, their careers destroyed. But the integrity of the nation of Australia will be preserved.

Is this an accurate comparison? You can let me know what you think.

In any case, as so many have put it so much better than I can, our mission and our goal here is to develop the good qualities of the heart, to embody the Dhamma of love and forgiveness. The essential problem here is not Vinaya legalities, but the injustice of excluding women from full participation in the holy life. Until we acknowledge this central fact, any legal argument will miss the point. The Vinaya is intended to support and encourage human beings to find liberation from suffering. The Vinaya rule that Ajahn Thanissaro quotes was intended to curb the bad behavior of unscrupulous monks, not to stop human beings from practicing Dhamma because they have different reproductive organs.

May the Sangha lift its head and open its heart! May the Sangha find room for all good people who seek liberation!

A few things…

Just a few miscellaneous items for you.

Here’s a wonderful new article by Ayya Tathaaloka. She has a wonderful way of capturing both the spirit and the sense of things. Do have a read.

There’s been some interest in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper on bhikkhuni ordination. Here’s the full paper, including the appendix, which translates Jetavana Sayadaw’s argument for bhikkhuni ordination.


My friends over at the Singapore Buddhist fellowship have a lot of interesting bhikkhuni materials on their website, check it out.

Some of you may be aware of a recent article by Ajahn Thanissaro where he questions the validity of the recent ordinations. His article has been criticized by Ayya Tathaaloka, Ayya Sudhamma, Ajahn Brahm, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and I understand that a group of scholars is also preparing a response. This is so great – for once I don’t have to do it myself! I don’t know if there is a place on the web where all these articles are collected together for easy reference? If someone could point me in the right direction I can put up some links – there’s a bit too much material for me to want to post it all here.


We’ve been told by so many people that the Sangha needs to go ahead by consensus, that we need to wait for agreement before we can do bhikkhuni ordination. What this means is by no means clear – exactly whose agreement is required? Wat Pa Pong? Thai Buddhism? International Theravada? Bhikkhu Bodhi has even said that:

Although there might not be any such thing as a unified international Theravada Sangha, it seems to me that each monk has an obligation to act in conscience as if there were such an entity; his decisions and deeds should be guided by the ideal of promoting the well-being and unity of an integral Sangha even if this Sangha is merely posited in thought.

But how does this entirely theoretical ‘Sangha’ play out in the real world? How does change actually come about? I’d like to share just a few examples of major changes that have helped to form modern Buddhism as we know it.

The Dhammayuttika

One of the most decisive changes in modern Thai Buddhism was the formation of the Dhammayuttika order. This came about gradually as the result of a number of reforms and innovations introduced to a tiny circle of monks led by a Prince of Thailand, Mongkut, during his time in robes. His own account of events is very interesting. He emphasizes that it was a gradual process, not a specific decision at a point in time to create a new order. His main motivation was that he believed the contemporary Thai Sangha was degenerate, and had become merely a vehicle for passing down rituals and poorly-understood customs. He wanted to revitalize the Sangha based on fresh modern ideas, which were informed by his frequent discussions with Western thinkers.

One foundation of his reform was to emphasize the authority of the Pali canon over that of contemporary teachers. Rather than simply accepting whatever was taught to him by his teachers, he studied the scriptures for himself and developed his own, often new and critical, perspectives. The innovations he introduced have become a part of the fabric of modern Thai Buddhism, their influence reaching much further than just the small circle of Dhammayuttika monks.

In emphasizing the Pali texts over tradition, Prince Mongkut was following a strong strand of thought within Buddhism itself. The early scriptures face this problem directly, and unambiguously state that one should follow the teachings of the Buddha rather than that of the teachers. This was one of the major issues at the Second Council, around 100 years after the Buddha. A group of monks proposed that following customary precedent (āciṇṇakappa) of the teachers was allowable. The finding of the Sangha was that this was sometimes allowable (if the teachers were in accord with Dhamma-Vinaya) and sometimes not. Prince Mongkut emphasized this principle, and claimed that the contemporary Thai Sangha were in fact following the doctrine of those who uncritically followed customary precedent (āciṇṇakappikavāda).

The rest of the Sangha in Thailand, before this time, consisted of many and diverse local traditions. As the idea of Dhammayuttika became more defined, the rest of the Sangha came to be treated under one umbrella, the Mahanikaya.

Part of his motivation, it seems, was his observation that the Vinaya practice of the majority Sangha was so lax that he began to doubt whether the ordination lineage could still be valid. He searched for what he believed was a pure, valid ordination from the Mon tradition in Burma, and re-ordained in that lineage, which forms the basis for the modern Dhammayuttika.

I said ‘it seems’ above, because even though I have heard this discussed among the monks, Mongkut’s own biography does not emphasize this. It is certain that he wanted to get a ‘purer’ ordination lineage, but it is not so clear that he believed the existing Thai ordinations were invalid. Perhaps he simply wanted to de-emphasize this controversial aspect in his published writings.

The point is still felt in modern practice. Some of the Dhammayuttika monks – though far from all – still treat Mahanikaya monks as if they are not really ordained. For example, Mahanikaya monks are not allowed to participate in the patimokkha recitation – instead, they often sit inside the sīmā but not within the Sangha, a curious practice that seems to be against the Vinaya. Other Dhammayuttika monks will not eat food that has been offered to a Mahanikaya monk – leading one senior Wat Pa Pong monk to remark, when a Dhammayuttika monk insisted on this practice, ‘We’re just novices (sāmaṇera) to him’.

There was, of course, no question of Mongkut even trying to seek consensus in his new ideas. He just went ahead and did it, trying to maintain harmony and keep the Sangha harmonious, but not letting this stop him from making the necessary changes. At this distance it is difficult to appreciate the stresses and conflicts that this entailed, but they were substantial.

Mongkut and those following him have been accused of imposing a scriptural orthodoxy on the diversity of Thai Buddhist forms. There is no doubt some truth to this. It was a form of ‘inner colonialism’, the modern, Westernized culture of Bangkok trying to establish a national identity through religious reform. While I believe his reforms were generally positive, and helped Thailand to survive in good shape through the colonial era, there is always a shadow to these things.

One area where the modernist thinking of Mongkut has been very controversial has been his belief that in our degenerate age, it is impossible to realize the paths and fruits of Buddhism. Rather than aiming for any transcendental goal, our practice of Buddhadhamma is in order to support mundane virtue and wisdom, to uphold the forms and texts of Buddhism. This belief, while almost unheard of in the West, is very common in modern Theravada. It became so mainstream that at one point any reference to Nibbana was removed from the Thai ordination ceremony.

The Forest Tradition

One monk who questioned this belief was Ajahn Mun. He determined to test for himself whether the truths of Buddhism could be attained in this very life. Rejecting the text-based approach of the Dhammayuttika in his day, he set out to prove through resolute striving and practice that the Dhamma could be attained in this very life. While we can imagine no response to this than admiration and a sense of awe at his accomplishments, the contemporary Thai Sangha saw things very differently.

If Ajahn Mun and other forest monks could claim to have realized the Dhamma, then immediately they put to shame the city monks, for whom such a goal was entirely irrelevant. They could, and did, question the authority of the scriptures and the received opinions of the Dhamma, based on no more than their own meditative experience.

The forest monks were rebels, living outside the system of settled, bureaucratic monks that was so essential for the State. In many places they met with fierce opposition from the local monks, not least because their dedicated, austere approach contrasted so baldly with the laxity of the city monks. A brief history of this is available from Ajahn Thanissaro, called The Customs of the Noble Ones.

It is difficult at this distance to appreciate the intensity of opposition the forest monks faced in many places. In Ubon Rajathani, the home of Ajahn Chah and the site of his monastery of Wat Pa Pong, the chief monk of the district couldn’t stand Ajahn Chah and the forest monks. When the western monks moved to start Wat Nanachat, they met with ferocious resistance from the local monks, who accused them of all sorts of things, especially with trying to destroy Thai Buddhism. By the time I arrived there, that dispute belonged in the distant past, but there was still a remnant of the conflict: a sign hung outside one of the local temples simply said, ‘We love Thai customs.’

The Vipassana School

Similar conflicts played out somewhat differently in neighbouring Burma. Like Thailand, Burma has inherited a complex mixture of localized Buddhist forms and practices. Nominally Theravadin, it is crucial to understand that in these countries before the modern era, communications and education were poor, there was little central control, and Buddhism had evolved a myriad of localized practices. Many of these have little or nothing to do with the Dhamma. Superstition, black magic, animist worship, and mystical rituals were the order of the day. These things constituted the main activities of the Buddhist monks. Even after the many reforms that have tried to overcome these things, they still remain to this day, underneath the rational text-based reforms of the Dhammayuttika, beside the contemplative approach of the meditation monks, and outside the approval of official State Buddhism.

Mainstream Burmese Buddhism emphasizes correct doctrinal understanding based on the Abhidhamma – an approach quite different to Thailand. Faced with a similar colonialist threat, and wanting to modernize Buddhism but revitalizing the most ‘rational’ aspects of the teachings, the Burmese responded by developing an Abhidhamma-based system of meditation, which they called Vipassana.

Like the radical Ajahn Mun, the Burmese developers of the Vipassana school, whose most famous exponent was Mahasi Sayadaw, rejected the then-prevalent view that Nibbana was unattainable in our degenerate age. But they differed from the Thai forest tradition in that, while the Thais emphasized that deep insight went hand in hand with deep concentration, or jhana, the Burmese Vipassana school claimed that jhana was unnecessary to realization of the Dhamma.

This controversy has continued unabated through Theravada Buddhism until the present day. During the 60s, a series of articles was published, with the Burmese and Sri Lankan Elders rebutting each others views in the strongest terms. The conflict raises a variety of central issues: the relation of text to experience, the authority of the Suttas versus the Abhidhamma, the way modern meditation schools evolve in response to specific cultural and historical developments.

In questioning the necessity for jhana, the Burmese elders were not merely positing a different approach to meditation, but were challenging one of the very factors of the eightfold path itself, Right Samadhi. The Buddha declared that disputes about Vinaya were trivial, but disputes about the path were very harmful.

Despite the radical nature of the Vipassana School, it gained widespread adherence through the Buddhist world, largely due to the energetic efforts of the Burmese teachers, especially in teaching overseas. Many of you, like myself, will have had your first serious meditation experience at a Vipassana retreat, whether Goenka or Mahasi style. With no historical context, it is difficult to appreciate what a radical break this approach was from traditional meditative practices.

The very idea of an intensive meditation retreat, which contrasts with the gradual approach emphasized in the Suttas, is a radical modern innovation. It was originally fueled by the belief that through such an intensive process it was possible for a significant percentage of meditators to realize stream-entry, the first stage of Awakening. Many monks outside the Vipassana movement reject these claims, and do not accept the authenticity of these reported Awakenings.

Pa Auk

In the last decade or so, a strong challenge to the Vipassana orthodoxy has arisen in the form of Pa Auk Sayadaw and his very successful monastery and meditation method. Pa Auk Sayadaw rejects the central tenets of the Vipassana schools, and bases his approach on a systematic development of jhana as exponded in the Visuddhimagga.

His teachings, while emphatically in the Theravadin Abhidhamma tradition, have been controversial, and in the past, so I’ve heard, his books have been banned by the State-sponsored Sangha Council. One controversy lies in the claim that a meditator should be able to actually see the details of the ‘series of thought moments’ (cittavithī). This is an Abhidhamma construct which, according to orthodox Burmese Buddhism, can be directly seen by Buddhas and chief disciples only.

Once again, while Pa Auk’s approach can be seen as deeply conservative on the one hand, he poses a radical challenge to the spiritual authority of the Vipassana schools. If jhana really is necessary, then he implictly claims to have a deeper level of realization than Mahasi and his followers. The major international success of Pa Auk can only have deepened this challenge.

Texts: translation and composition

These reforms are, in many cases, so prevalent in international Buddhism, that they are seen as normal, and their radical nature is obscured. Another area where this is the case is in the translation of texts.

These days we have excellent English translations of many Buddhist scriptures. We might be surprised to learn that translation of scriptures into local languages is largely a modern development in Theravada. Of course, the Tibetans and Chinese translated all their scriptures long ago, but in Theravada the texts have been primarily passed down in Pali, which would be mainly learnt by the monks, and they would interpret the texts through the oral traditions. Translated texts were sporadic and partial.

The first effort to make a complete modern translation of the texts, astonishingly enough, was in England, under the guidance of T. W. Rhys Davids. Official translations into Sri Lankan and Thai have appeared (I’m not sure about Burmese). They are rarely read, and native speakers complain that the language is so rarefied that it is scarcely easier than the Pali.

So the modern practice of reading directly from the scriptures in one’s own language is a modern development. In recent years this has been greatly supported by the work of Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ajahn Thanissaro. Both of these monks have made large scale translations that are widely read in the English-speaking Dhamma world.

Not only is the very act of reading a Sutta itself an innovation, it is also important to bear in mind that both of these monks have their own personal interpretations of the Dhamma. In the past, translation and text-transmission was made by centrally organized bodies. Now, individuals can translate and analyze texts, bringing their own personal and idiosyncratic ideas to bear.

Both of these monks have what i would call a ‘critical conservatism’ with relation to the tradition: while content to pass down the traditional reading in many cases, they are not afraid to criticize or change the traditional interpretation, each in their own way.

The evolution of this can be traced in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s own works. In his translation of the Majjhima Nikaya he almost always restricted the footnotes to giving a summary of the traditional commentary, and rarely ventured to differ. His subsequent translation of the Samyutta Nikaya is far more daring and critical in his relation with the commentary. In addition, he has started to introduce the notion of comparative studies, viewing the Pali texts in the light of other early Buddhist texts, primarily in the Chinese canon. This is, so far as i am aware, without precedent in orthodox Theravada, which always views its own texts as final, original, and complete.

This emergence of individual, personal perspectives on the Dhamma is not limited to translations. In past decades we have witnessed an explosion of writings on Dhamma, which again has no precedent in the Theravadin tradition. For millenia, Theravada contended itself with composing commentaries on texts, grammars, Vinaya commentaries, Abhidhamma works, cosmologies, and the like. Nowhere do we find personal, experiential literature. Theravadins of the past, as exemplified by the great commentator Buddhaghosa, saw their task as the accurate transmission of the Dhamma, and regarded their own personal experiences as the least authority of all. The emphasis on personal experiential witness to the Dhamma is a product of Theravada’s encounter with the individualistic values of modernity.

How does reform actually happen?

These are just a few examples, chosen because of their importance for modern international Buddhism. Most students of Buddhism in the West will be unaware that these things have ever been controversial, and will be surprised to find that the form of Buddhism which has been presented to them has very recent roots.

Casting our eye back over these reforms, ask the question: Did any of these happen through consensus of the entire Sangha? Or even of one part of it? Did any of the monks (and later, laypeople) who brought these changes about do so only after having convinced everyone of their ideas? We only need to ask the question to realize how ridiculous this would be.

Not to speak of these reforms, which have created the modern Buddhism we all know, what about other reforms? When the Thai authorities decided to impose a State-based Buddhism on the regions, did they get consensus first? Assuredly not – there was great opposition, especially in the North, and especially to the idea that the State should appoint preceptors.

When the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka decided to ordain only men of the Govigama caste, did they do so with an understanding of how this would add to the greater integrity of international Theravada? Especially, did they do this in gratitude for the Thai monks who gave them the ordination lineage, knowing that caste-based ordination is entirely alien to Thailand?

This question is especially pertinent in the context of bhikkhuni ordination. Inamaluve Sumangala Nayaka Thera, the prelate of an important branch of the Asgiriya chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, took a radical step, breaking from long-standing tradition and threatening Sangha harmony by ordaining young men without regard for caste distinction. He even went so far as to ordain Tamils, breaking another long Siyam Nikaya tradition. If this was not enough, he then was instrumental in ordaining bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka. In none of these cases did he have the widespread support, let alone consensus, of the Sangha as a whole, or even his own Nikaya. In each case his moves were the opportunity for criticism and disharmony.

What about Wat Pa Pong itself? When this was established as a separate entity within the larger Mahanikaya, did Ajahn Chah and his monks have the support of the whole Mahanikaya? In deciding to treat visiting monks as if they were not regular bhikkhus – making them sit at the end of the line of bhikkhus and excluding them from the patimokkha recitation – did they act with the consensus of the bhikkhus who they were treating in this way?

Finally, what about the 1928 ban on bhikkhunis? Was this reached by a consensus approach, consulting and researching the opinions of Theravadin bhikkhus in Thailand and overseas? Certainly not: it was a ruling imposed by a centralized authority. There was then, as there has always been, a diversity of views and perspectives on female ordination in Theravada.

I am trying to think of an example of reform in modern Buddhism that meets this requirement, and I cannot think of any. If you can, please let me know. As far as my limited knowledge of the subject goes, in every case reform and adaptation of Buddhism – whether positive or negative – happens because of the acts of one person or group. They are convinced that theirs is the right way to do things, and stick by that even in the face of opposition and conflict. As the Buddha advised in the case of Sangha conflict: yathā dhammo tathā tiṭṭḥāhi – you should stand by the Dhamma.

It will be objected that the examples I have given are different from the current situation. Of course, this is quite true, and in no single case that I have mentioned parallels the current situation. But then, nothing else does either. Every historical situation is different, and must be assessed on its own terms. What I am trying to show here is that any reform takes place by going against the stream. No matter how much we might like to bring all alongside by way of reasoned persuasion, this simply does not happen in the real world for any issue of substance and complexity.

I think this is a case where sheer ontology trumps ethics. We can argue all we like about what is the ‘right’ way to bring about change. But the fact of change ignores the ethics of the thing. It is a purely evolutionary matter: who survives, survives. We can never know whether another way to bring about change would have been ‘better’.

There are those who tell us that we should pursue change through the proper channels for reform. Such channels have a decided disadvantage: they don’t exist. There is, to my knowledge, not one single major reform in Buddhism in modern times that has been accomplished through the ‘proper channels’, through acting ‘as if’ the international Theravadin Sangha were a real entity. An insistence on ‘proper channels’ would lead only to stagnation, decay, fossilization.

Such forces are so strong in Theravada already that they threaten its survival. Buddhism will not be damaged or destroyed through reform. It will die crushed under the weight of its own past. Religious reform is always messy, controversial, conflictive. But without it, Buddhism cannot survive.

We went ahead with bhikkhuni ordination in the sincere belief that without a respectful role for women, the Sangha does not have a future in any non-traditional Buddhist country. Even in traditional countries, this inequality will have a greater and greater impact on the vitality of the Sangha. In this sense, our acts were genuinely holding the best interests of the international Sangha at heart.

The 1928 bhikkhuni ban – some new thoughts

I’ve just updated the post on the 1928 bhikkhuni ban, following a discussion of the matter with Ajahn Brahm. I think there are some significant points i missed previously. The entire argument is found in full in the original posting, but I thought i would put the additional paragraphs here as well, as they make a new legal point which should be highlighted.

A further problem with the rule is that it focuses on the preceptor (upajjhaya for monks, pavattini for bhikkhunis). In contemporary Thai culture, the preceptor is more or less regarded as the one responsible for the ordination, whereas in the Vinaya it is the Sangha as a whole. The way this is phrased, admittedly, both in the Vinaya and in modern usage, can be a bit vague, but this is the general tendency.

The rule appears to make it illegal for a bhikkhu to be the preceptor at a going forth for women. In the bhikkhuni ordination in the Pali Vinaya, however, the preceptor is not a bhikkhu, but a bhikkhuni – as the 1928 ruling itself acknowledges. So at the ordination in Perth, Ayya Tathaaloka was the preceptor, not Ajahn Brahm. The 1928 ruling forbids a bhikkhu from giving the ordination; since Ayya Tathaaloka is not a bhikkhu, and since Ajahn Brahm did not act as preceptor, there is no violation of this rule.

The essential issue here is that there is not a disagreement about the Vinaya procedures, but a historical difference. The framers of this rule were simply unaware of the existence of the Dharmaguptaka bhikkhuni lineage in the East Asian traditions.

Ironically enough, in the English Sangha, since its female ordination procedures do not follow the Vinaya, the preceptor is a bhikkhu. For the most part this has been Ajahn Sumedho. If we are to follow the 1928 ruling, any giving of the ‘going forth’ is illegal, and it would seem to be the English Sangha that has violated this law, not Ajahn Brahm. One could make the technical argument that the English siladhara are not samaneris – which is a very odd kind of argument to me, but I’ll leave that aside. In any case, are they considered to have ‘gone forth’? Basically, in Buddhism, you’re either ‘gone forth’ or a lay person. If they have ‘gone forth’ – which everyone in practice agrees they have – then for a bhikkhu to give that ordination is illegal under the 1928 ruling.

Letters for the Sangha

Dear friends,

Many of you know of, and hopefully have signed, the petition for bhikkhunis. The organizers of this petition were a group of concerned lay people who came together to address the gender inequality within the Sangha. They plan to deliver the petition to the Ajahns of before the upcoming Western Abbots Meeting, December 7-9 at Wat Pa Nanachat, Thailand.

In addition, the organizers would like to present some letters for the Ajahns, and have invited contribution from the visitors to this blog.

The letters should be respectful, brief, and from-the-heart. We want your voices to be heard.

Please send your letters to:

English Sangha statement on the five points

Here we have it: the official statement from the English Sangha on the controversial Five Points, which officially subjugate the nuns to the monks. You heard about it first on this blog: before the Perth bhikkhuni ordination, this topic was unknown in the wider community. I heard about it, asked for information, and got none. I heard ‘leaked’ information, blogged it, and then got some more accurate information so I could correct a few mistakes in the first version. An unconventional way of operating; but at least it got results. While the English bhikkhus had always said they would make the Five Points public, there was no sign of any movement until the cat was well out of the bag.

Please read the document carefully. I think you’ll find that, while the authors (unknown) obviously have a very different attitude to these things than I do, the document essentially confirms the criticisms that I have made in this blog, and those which have been expressed by some of the siladharas.

I upload a copy here in case the link to the Forest Sangha website breaks.


Forgiveness – or not

Last Friday (the 13th!) Ajahn Brahm sent an email to the western Ajahns, once more explaining his acts, and very generously suggesting that they hold an Act of Forgiveness. Previously, I put up an excerpt from this email. Doing this was my idea, and Ajahn Brahm gave his permission. Later, however, he reconsidered, and thinking that the message was really just a private gesture of friendship, he asked me to take it down. So I’ve done that.

I’ll leave this post up for the next week for the sake of the kind people who have posted comments. In a week I’ll delete the post entirely. If you want your comment to be saved, please copy it to another appropriate blog posting.

Voice of UK Siladhara – on the experience of the 5 points

I’ve copied the following article from the ongoing discussion on Facebook, where it was posted by Thanissara, who was one of the original siladharas in England. My thanks to Also Experienced, who put the link in one of their posts. I’ve been wanting to find something like this, as the debate so far has been far too driven by the blokes – me especially.

For many respondents there is still a sense of disbelief, that things can’t really be this bad. But for the last several years i have been listening to voices like the one below – sensitive, intelligent, balanced. I hear the pain there and I want to do something about it. When we just go ahead to do our thing, all goes well and we have no more than the usual everyday dukkha. But when we try to do it through the ‘system’ – well, you can see the results.

“I have been a Theravadan nun for a number of years. I love the Sangha with my whole Being and monastic life is like breathing to me. I never had any difficulties or problems with being a woman. I really enjoy it, and could see the advantages and limitation of it, as with any conditions.

While spending some time in the East, I was deeply shocked by the way women are treated there even now. Coming back to the West and still sensitive from this discrepancy, to my distress I realized that a similar attitude unconsciously suffuses the whole monastic structure even in the West. Being a nun in this environment has become increasingly more and more challenging.

I have been trying to do my best to transform this pain/dukkha and desperately trying to understand this suffering and find peace. It has been an on-going process for the last few years. With our most senior monks being critical and upset with the nuns in public and in private last year and then introducing these 5-points, it has became even more confusing and unbearable.

I cannot help feeling I am judged and discriminated about, just on the condition of having a female birth this lifetime. It does not make any sense to me. My rational mind and the emotional part of my being cannot understand all of this. From the beginning when I had the great blessing to meet the Buddha-Dhamma many years ago, the compassionate aspect of His teaching deeply resonated with my whole Being. The domination of one group of people above another seems out of alignment with the wisdom and compassion of the teaching of the Buddha.

When we were presented with 5-points I was shocked. Basically, the 5-points are reinforce the position of women in the Sangha as being forever junior to the Bhikkhus. In some way it is not a new thing, but how it has been phrased, and the process of how it has been done – without warning and without negotiation – putting pressure on us and then withholding our siladhara ordination if we are not in agreement – is shocking and not supportive of trust.

During the period of time when we were considering how to sign these 5 points, it was very painful and excruciating for many of us. During this time, I had been trying to find some integrity in myself that would allow me to honour my Truth and not to let myself be broken. How could I find the resources to even formally accept the conditions, which I felt to be so destructive for the well- being of women in this form and for the men as well?

I have felt, especially over the last several years, that our Nuns’ Sangha has become very strong and beautiful and mature both in the individual practice as well as in our skills working in the relational field. This collective energy field has been strong enough to hold things even when significant individuals who held a lot of responsibility decided to leave. Of course there were interpersonal problems and challenging dynamics, but I felt there has been a good holding space. Personally, I think a very fine and alive tangible Energy- Body has been created between us, when we sat in the wide circle to discuss things.

Many of the nuns shared the perception that the situation of the feminine in the Buddhist monastic structure is not well adjusted to modern values, but thought that if we are wise and patient, we would slowly move forwards to create a healthier monastic structure with equality for all. Maybe this was naive, but this is what many of us felt.

Unfortunately, the five points stop any potential for future growth or improvement. I think our strength and beauty and maturity has became apparent and threatening to the monks, especially those men who had some painful or traumatic stuff around women. We became too strong and outspoken for their comfort.

Last year it was a very confused and complex situation. There were a few events that strongly affected the elder bhikkhus, events that the Siladhara didn’t initiate but which affected us. A few monks openly criticized the nuns’ community, questioning the integrity of our practice and even saying that our community is going downhill. This, as I said above, does not concur with my direct experience.

I have been upset, disheartened and disillusioned with our monks here (except a few courageous and compassionate brothers who have been empathetic all along) and with the whole monastic structure which supports such unhealthy and undermining conditions for women. The very vehicle which is supposed to enable one to wake up to the fullness of human potential leaves one instead feeling deeply malnourished after being exposed to it over a number of years.

There is no ground for being part of the larger monastic community, for belonging, and for having a valid ordination. Rather, there is the constant reminder on the structural level of the inferiority of women.
So, considering all of the above brings many questions to my mind and heart.

How could I still use a monastic vehicle that is so structurally unfriendly and prejudiced towards women, as my Path to liberation? How can I open up to my full potential of this Human Birth and cultivate the Heart based on the Brahma Viharas (love and compassion) in conditions that are constantly undermining me as person just because of my gender? How can I live with integrity, if I love being a monastic but find the ancient structure unresponsive to our modern times?

These questions keep arising in my mind and heart but there are no answers. I am personally interested in awakening with a heart strong and radiant and full of love with compassion for all Beings, myself included. These questions are part of an on-going enquiry and the answers have not yet emerged…….”