Response of the English Sangha

I’ve just received the fax that was sent from the senior monks and some nuns of the Amaravati circle of monasteries to Ajahn Brahm before the bhikkhuni ordination.

The fax says that they’ve heard that Ajahn Brahm is to proceed with bhikkhuni ordination irrespective of and independent of consultative processes with his Sangha peers in this communion.

The use of the word communion (saṁvāsa) here derives from modern Thai usage, where it effectively means ‘our group.’ In Vinaya, all bhikkhus are saṁvāsa with all other bhikkhus (and bhikkhunis with bhikkhunis) unless they have been formally suspended by the Sangha or they have declared themselves to be of a different communion. Here the term reinforces the felt sense of the WPP Sangha that they constitute a separate, special group.

The letter goes on to say that the Ajahns cannot back any action Ajahn Brahm undertakes in this way in such a major and sensitive topic. reminding him of their long-held friendship and respect, they strongly recommend that Ajahn Brahm desists. To continue, the letter says, is so contrary to the standard of our saṁvāsa that it would in all likelihood prevent them from taking part in the upcoming WAM at Bodhinyana in December.

The letter says nothing of expulsion from WPP, and indeed it seems that at this time the most serious consequence envisaged was the likely cancellation of the WAM. The Ajahns said they could not back the ordination, and recommended desisting, but made no suggestion of further punitive action. There is no objection to bhikkhuni ordination as such, only to going ahead without consultation.

9 thoughts on “Response of the English Sangha

  1. I cannot but wonder whether the recent move is not only to do with the ordination of Bhikkhunis. As anyone who has followed Ajahn Brahm’s teachings over the years cannot fail to realize, the emphasis and tone of his teachings has been out of step with the emphasis and tone of other major teachers within the tradition – the reification of the Jhanas is only the most obvious example. My feeling – admittedly “from the outside”, I am English and live in Denmark so have had not direct contact with Ajahn Brahm, is that this out of stepness has served to build the Ajahn’s personal charismatic standing. Now, this might be argued to be upaya and I acknowledge we “should not”, attach to teachers, but I have always found the content and style of Ajahn Brahms to be not conducive to right understanding or right practice. The unfortunate thing is that the real point at issue – the full ordination of women within the forest sangha tradition of WPP – is still not seriously being addressed it would seem. Ajahn Brahm has to accept at least some responsibility for allowing this to happen.

    With metta

    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your comments. It is indeed true to say that some aspects of Ajahn Brahm’s teachings differ from that of some of the other Ajahns. But that is one hallmark of the Thai tradition, it is not hung up on conceptions of ‘orthodoxy’. Actually, there is considerable diversity in doctrinal views among the Sangha: 1-life vs. 3-life dependent origination; jhanas are necessary or not; the Suttas are the authority or the Thai Ajahns; Nibbana is cessation or an ‘Original Mind’. Some monks apparently even deny basic teachings such as rebirth. Personally I find this tolerance of diversity to be, in itself, a good thing, although there is little real dialogue or meaningful engagement on the points of difference.

      Doctrinal differences have not contributed directly to the expulsion, but it is true they may lie in the background. One thing that Ajahn Brahm has broken with is a sense of subservience to views of the Thai Ajahns. For much of the western sangha, if a respected Thai monks says it is so, then it is so – there’s no two ways about it. Ajahn Brahm has questioned or even denied some of the doctrines taught by some of the forest monks, such as the Original Mind interpreted as Nibbana. While as a doctrinal issue it is perhaps abstruse, it points to a critical question, that is, who has spiritual authority. If one questions an interpretation of Nibbana, then it would seem to imply that one is, whether intentionally or not, questioning the attainment of that person. Since the Thai forest tradition is built almost entirely on the personal spiritual authority of charismatic masters, this is a very challenging position. I don’t know how much this contributed, but I think it is a factor at play here.

  2. sujato :Hi Tom,
    It is indeed true to say that some aspects of Ajahn Brahm’s teachings differ from that of some of the other Ajahns…

    While as a doctrinal issue it is perhaps abstruse, it points to a critical question, that is, who has spiritual authority. If one questions an interpretation of Nibbana, then it would seem to imply that one is, whether intentionally or not, questioning the attainment of that person.

    Yes, I have also noted Ajahn Brahm’s different perspectives from many Thai monks I know. I also cannot vouch for Ajahn Brahm’s spiritual authority, but some points to ponder…

    Do you believe in ghosts? You don’t because you have proven they do not exist or because you have simply never seen one?

    One denies rebirth. Because we live only one life or YOU (impersonal pronoun here) cannot recall your past lives?

    Jhana is not important to enlightenment. Because the Buddha said that there was another way to attain enlightenment, or because YOU have never experienced a jhana?!?

    What is Nibbana?… What you interpret from the text must be correct because it is correct, or because your interpretation of the text is the only thing you can base your view on since YOU yourself have not reached Nibbana yet?!?

    • Dear Dheerayupa,

      You’ve pointed to a few of the issues that have been discussed in Buddhist circles, and as you quite rightly note, the critical issue is the means of knowing. In indian philosophy this is called pramana. Are we to rely on experience? But we know that experience can sometimes mislead – as is pointed out, for example in the Brahmajala Sutta or the Mahakammavibhanga Sutta. Or are we to rely on scripture – but then we know that the texts have been subject to a long and complex history of redaction. Or are we to rely on the testimony of living Awakened ones – but how to know who is really enlightened? There’s no easy answer. In the end we must rely on our own inner moral compass.

  3. “Ajahn Brahm gives a spirited talk on how to deal with the difficulties of life, with his ‘excommunication’ as he light-heartedly calls it as an example.”

    If you have listened to Ajahn Brahm’s talk about his ‘disenfranchisement’ as he calls it in this recording on the BSWA site you may have noticed a glaring mistake in one of Ajahn Brahm’s examples from the suttas :the Kalama Sutta. He said in regard to difficult decisions one may have to make: “If it makes sense – follow it” and if it “feels the right thing to do in your heart”. I was somewhat surprised to hear Ajaan Brahm say these things as the Buddha actually advises against making a decision based on these very things! This is what the Kalama Sutta actually says:

    “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.

    Any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise.

    This may reveal a possible significant skew in Ajhan Brahms view of the situation as regards the Bhikkhuni ordination, in that he has ‘gone it alone’ without regard to consideration overall results. He was certainly courageous but one wonders how wise. Time will tell but at what cost to harmony in the Sangha?

  4. sujato : In the end we must rely on our own inner moral compass.

    Dear Ajahn Sujato,

    My spiritual compass has told me that I have finally found my teacher in Ajahn Brahm. Sufferring a greatest tragedy of my life and practicing what Ajahn Brahm has said in many of his talks, I have learnt not only to deal with my tragedy but also to train my mind to be a happier, more compassionate and more undertanding person.

    My gratitude to him is infinite.

  5. Be guided by our own conscience!

    Thailand may have LOTS of MONKS but how many of them are wise? How many of them truely practise Buddhism? A lot of monks in Thailand are concerned over power, authority & power. Why can’t WPP give female the opportunity of full ordination when these nuns are the ones truely following the Buddha’s path by bringing peace, happiness, joy, harmony, etc. to the world?

    Those who oppose the ordination of Bhikkhunis are truely narrow-minded.

  6. I see this latest tiff in a wider context that goes back a long time and, frankly, has a lot less to do with any of Ajan Brahm’s teachings than it has to do with jealousy.

    It is doubtful if any of Ajahn Chah’s deciples have been as successful as Ajahn Brahm with the exception of Jack Kornfield. I am measuring success here by popularity, by reputation, and by the physical plant of the sangha.

    I have spent several years listening to dhamma talks by a number of WPP decendants. I have read their books and articles, I have corresponded with a few, and I have repeatedly been struck by the amount of ego involved with no self.

    Frankly, given the opportunity WPP had to diffuse this situation and didn’t, given where the attack came from and who its leaders were, given the snide remarks made about Brahm for years in some circles, I see this as punishment born of jealousy. Nothing more, nothing less.

    I have heard the same snide comments made of Jack Kornfield by the same people and again I see that as jelousy. Kornfield is out of the reach of punishment, however.

    I suggest Ajahn Amaro will be next on the hitlist. He is becoming far too popular within some circles.

    • “I have heard the same snide comments made of Jack Kornfield by the same people and again I see that as jelousy. Kornfield is out of the reach of punishment, however.”

      Kornfield is a nice guy and I totally disapprove of the ad hominem attacks that have sometimes been directed against him, but I mainly avoid him because I don’t think he is that advanced in the Dhamma (Brahmavamso would never admit it openly, but I doubt he thinks much of Kornfield’s skills either). I think a lot of people resent him because he has been taken as the number 1 authority on Buddhism by many circles in the West (undeservingly in my opinion). However, I think he is useful resource for people who just want to meditate for stress reduction purposes.

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