Ajahn Brahm made his announcement on Sunday 18 October that the Perth community would be performing bhikkhuni ordination. By 9.30am Wednesday 21 October, a delegation of senior Thai and Western Ajahns of the Wat Pa Pong tradition visited Bangkok to inform the acting head of the Thai Council of Elders, Somdet Buddhajahn, of their opposition. For the normally aloof WPP Sangha, such swift and decisive action is unheard of.
For those unfamiliar with the Thai system, the current head of the Sangha, Somdet Nyanasamvara, has been invalided in hospital for many years, but still holds his post. Somdet Buddhajahn has been the effective leader of the Sangha in the meanwhile. By a curious coincidence, he is also Ajahn Brahm’s preceptor, and Ajahn Brahm has spoken to him previously about bhikkhuni ordination.
The delegation consisted of Ajahn Sopha, A. Tongjan, A. Anan, A. Somchai, A. Nyanadhammo, A. Jayasaro, A. Tong, and A. Kevalee. They presented a letter from Ajahn Liem, the abbot of Wat Pa Pong and the head of the tradition. I have the letter in Thai, and pending an accurate translation from someone with better Thai than myself, the following summary will have to serve.
The letter informs the (Thai) Council of Elders on behalf of the branches of WPP in Thailand and overseas of their opposition to ordaining bhikkhunis. Bhikkhuni ordination was banned at the meeting at WPP on 16 June 2009.
Actually, the formal statement that emerged from the 2009 meeting was simply that the meeting did not agree with bhikkhuni ordination (mai hen dooay). But the current letter says this decision was to ‘forbid’ (hahm) branches from supporting bhikkhuni ordination, and that any bhikkhu who disobeys this injunction ‘must be expelled’ (torng tut ork).
An interpretation of the law that, shall we say, favors flexibility over literalism. If only the Ajahns would apply the same attitude to Vinaya, or, perhaps, the possibility of doing something to help women’s ordination.
It is extremely unfortunate, the letter goes on, that I have to inform you that Ajahn Brahm has decided to perform a bhikkhuni ordination with himself as preceptor.
As Ajahn Brahm and myself have pointed out many times, there is no bhikkhu preceptor for a bhikkhuni ordination. But our perspective has, so far, not gained any traction, as it is merely based on the facts.
The letter repeats the usual claim that Ajahn Brahm did not consult. It says that the European monasteries have utterly rejected the ordination and called upon Ajahn Brahm to immediately cease.
Following the decisions made by the meeting of WPP on 16 June 2007 and 2009, the Sangha of WPP are prepared to expel Ajahn Brahm from WPP.
For our understanding of Somdet Buddhajahn’s response, we are reliant on a summary that was circulated later by Ajahn Jayasaro.
The Somdet read the letters from Ajahn Liem and from the English Sangha, and then congratulated the Ajahns for their response. He said that it was normal for this kind of disagreement to happen and that we should not be burdened by it. WPP should deal with the matter as its regulations stipulate, but should not make a more serious rift than necessary. Ajahn Chah had once told him that he was afraid of two things in the future of WPP: that it would be bullied by outside forces, and that it would be split by views and opinions. He said that it was important to work for harmony.
The Somdet said that Ajahn Brahm is a senior and experienced monk and he has done what he considers right, but the Thai Sangha does not agree. That is his choice and it is not possible to prevent him doing so. Somdet himself would give further consideration as to his own response, mentioning the fact that he is the guarantor of Ajahn Brahm’s status as an upajjhaya recognized by the Thai Sangha.
On the subject of bhikkhunis, the Somdet gave the opinion that women could ordain in the Mahayana tradition. He said, according to the report, that the ordination should be considered invalid and that the women should be regarded as mae chis.
There is nothing much more to add to this, except that the claim that the ordination is invalid has nothing to do with Vinaya, but only the point of view of Thai Buddhism. As I have said before, for the women to be mae chis is ludicrous, as the mae chi is purely a Thai cultural development and the women concerned have never been mae chis.
This is not about their actual status of ordination, but about shoving the nuns in a corner where they can be ignored. Call them ‘Mahayana’ or ‘mae chi’ and they are outside the sphere of moral concern of the Thai Sangha, which is only worried about its institutional purity.
It is noteworthy, however, that the Somdet praised the credibility of Ajahn Brahm, who he has known for over thirty years, and stressed the integrity of his decision. The Somdet’s words praising harmony and cautioning against overreaction were, alas, ignored.
It is superfluous to add that there was no discussion of the actual problem, the discrimination against women in the Thai Sangha, and the transformative power of bhikkhuni ordination.