The English Sangha Trust

Readers of my whimsical little blog will have become used to the idea that sexism is alive and thumping in the male Sangha of the WPP tradition, particularly including those in the West.

But there’s more.

Not only have the English WPP Sangha imposed the discriminatory ‘Five Points’ on the nuns there, but (and here I insert one of my legally required ‘it seems’ – in Pali this is covered by the delightful particle kira) a male majority has also been enforced on the lay committee.

The lay committee is called the English Sangha Trust. This is the original body that was formed with the intention to invite a Theravada Sangha to set up in England. After a couple of attempts, they invited Ajahn Sumedho and a group of Western monks from Thailand, and since then they have set up the monasteries at Chithurst and Amaravati. (They are indirectly involved in the other English WPP monasteries.)

Recently there has been tension in the EST over the question of nuns, as the gender tensions of the monasteries spill over to the lay committee. Obviously, women on the committee are more likely to support the nuns, and so (kira) an extra female appointment to the EST was recently blocked – by who? – so as to preserve a male majority. Since then, one of the remaining two women has (kira) resigned.

Believe it or not.

30 thoughts on “The English Sangha Trust

  1. Dear Bhante,
    I wonder if the EST is composed primarily of Asian British? That’s the only configuration that I can imagine would create this governing body.

    The women’s rights movement took birth in England.

    Getting the word out (as you are doing, thank you) and lifting the veil of silence will, I feel certain, bring the necessary awareness required to change this institutionalized oppression.

    With gratitude and respect.
    Sarana

    • Dear Sarana,

      The EST is not comprised of Asian British, it is an old-school organization which has, so far as I am aware, always been made up primarily of ‘English British’.

      This is an important point, for it is often misunderstood that ‘Asians’ will be less interested in a fair go for women, and that the socially progressive movement will be stimulated by the West. This is very far from the case. I know several Asian women whose active support for bhikkhuni ordination was stimulated by their shock at seeing how discriminated the nuns in England were.

      For most of the Asian Buddhist world, bhikkhunis are a normal part of life. They are an integral part of Buddhism in lands east and north of Thailand, and have become widely accepted by the Sri Lankan people (who, may I add, are among our major supporters here at Santi).

      So many people have called us ‘progressive’ for supporting bhikkhuni ordination. But we are over ten years behind the Sinhalese; 1600 years behind the Chinese; and 2500 years behind the Indians!

      metta

      Bhante Sujato

  2. I do believe the EST has responsibility – not only to support the welfare of the monastic sangha – but also to the lay community that supports them – that responsibility needs to include transparency, and a ‘checks and balance’ to undue power from an unchecked monastic heirarchy.

    I believe what we see from the EST these days is a near on total lack of transparency and a sycophantic relationship to a few ‘elders’ it aims to protect at the expense of the larger welfare of the 4-fold sangha..

    I sincerely hope that can change – and that all the recent events can lead to a real open dialogue between the 4-fold sangha..which has been so badly needed within the UK monasteries – for so long…

  3. Dear Bhante,
    I did look at the EST photos and indeed, as you say, they are English–and youngish looking, too. How disappointing.

    In the state, the response to the ordination so far is mixed. Many people are excited and think it’s a no-brainer. Others have already heard stories about how ego-maniacal Ajahn Brahm sounded in the recordings online. Most people do think it’s an Asian issue, so what you say above is quite counter-intuitive. One dhamma-friend just wrote:
    “As an American man, I was put off by the treatment of women as I witnessed it in Burma. It’s no better in Thailand, as we see. The aspect I found most distressing was the intractability of these old encrusted ways of behavior and the acceptance of them as Dhamma. Ouch! The first time I tried to bow to a very senior nun she almost had a heart attack. At the same time, she reprimanded (admonished is the monastic term) me for my lack of monastic protocol. I responded by saying if I couldn’t physically bow in respect to her I would nevertheless continue to bow to her in my heart and fully intended to so so. She said that would be fine, but she was mostly just relieved that I wouldn’t any longer publicly embarrass myself or her with inappropriate displays. A big part of the problem (this age old sexism) lies with Asian nuns and lay women. They are passively compliant with the status quo and blinded by cultural tradition. There is the very real possibility that this  current situation may be discounted as having been perpetrated by western women and, therefore, not to be taken seriously. Foreigners, after all, don’t actually understand real Dhamma. This is another Asian cultural belief that I found off putting. Still do.”

    So, the “blame” seems to be divided between Ajahn Brahm and Asian culture. No one, not even me, wants it to be the western sangha. But the evidence is indeed pointing in that direction.

    With metta,
    Sarana

  4. I think that there is both more and less to what is happening here. Ajahn Sujato, Ajahn Brahm and myself are aware of a very strong anti-nun element in the Forest Sangha as a movement. The misogyny is not restricted purely to WPP & WPN.
    When you have senior monastics like Ajahns Khemanando, Cattamalo, Nyanadhammo, Kevali being so openly hostile to ordination in any shape or form by women, it is a situation that had to end in what has happened. To listen to these Ajahns speak on the subject of female ordination, you would find it hard to credit the idea that women can actually walk upright, let alone actually pursue the Homeless Life.
    To me the events of recent years with the move to establish a Nuns Monastery in the US, the establishment of Dhammasara, Santi Forest Monastery, the growth of and increasing assertiveness of the Siladhara Sangha in the UK, has ultimately distilled in the Bhikkhus who are hostile to Nuns, the need to do something…and this is exactly what they have done. They have organised and ultimately gotten some senior Bhikkhus “on side”.
    That this is totally harmful to the image of the Bhikkhu Sangha and to a degree Buddhism as a whole seems to not have been a concern of these monks. There has been an organised effort to seize back control of a Tradition….it’s knee jerk, and ill considered.
    What will happen in the long term?
    I think that those of us who are “pro” Nun will organise ourselves and establish our own network of monasteries and ultimately our own organisation and ordination lineages. No one is able to prevent Ajahn Brahm from ordaining people. He has the authority from the Thai Sangha and above all he has the authority stemming from the Vinaya itself. If anything in excluding Ajahn Brahm and by extension those of us posting here, the Sangha at WPP & WPN have done us a favour. We can now do what we have wanted to and we can do it without the continued interference and obstruction by the conservative elements.

  5. The EST is composed of “older” conservative types like
    maurice walshe / scholars and the “establishment” of
    academia – i know they basically follow the conservative
    line – the thai sangha – There must be a big reason for
    this …. ?

  6. sorry – “was” ….
    my question is – what is there difficulty – all we know is
    that buddha was initially reluctant – why ?

    • I too have long considered why the Buddha was initially reluctant. I guess we’ll never know why for sure because he was never asked that question unfortunately. My take on it, for what it’s worth, is that he saw a need for sensitivity, to somewhat appease those who would oppose due to the social circumstances in that time. Also, having caused much furore when he ordained his son, Rahula, without consulting Yasodhara or his parents, he perhaps thought it best that he ought to show some initial reluctance when Mahapajapati, his step-mom, asked for ordination. To agree immediately would most likely have caused another furore.

      More often than not, we perceive what we want to see and/or know. I was at the ordination ceremony on 22 Oct at Bodhiyana, and whilst watching the ceremony, I did wonder why Ajahn Brahm kept the event low key. Having already concluded in my mind that the Buddha had practised sensitivity wiith his initial reluctance to ordain women (my perception), the thought arose that Ajahn Brahm too was practising senstivity towards his peers who opposed. To have agreed to make the historic ordination a public celebration & display would have been highly insensitive, akin to rubbing salt into an open wound. Again this was merely my perception which of course we now know is incorrect from Ajahn’s talk at Dhammaloka on 7 Nov.

  7. Because ordaining women was pushing the social envelope. Look at the absence of Hindu Nuns. He went as far as he could and stopped….hence Nuns needing to bow to monks.

    • Ignorance is Bliss Russel!

      There were very many sorts of female renunciaes of all sorts of sects in ancient India. And Buddhist scriptures are full of references to them. Even Khema, one time wife of Maha Kassapa was resident in one such nearby place and regularly visited the Buddha to hear discourses the till the Bhikkuni Sanga was established.

  8. No. He wasn’t. He knew that Lay culture would not accept/support equality between male & female monastics and in order for the Dispensation to grow he compromised.
    The anti-nun clique here are to use a metaphor, someone playing poker who was dealt 4 Aces….which is a winning hand. Now we’re asking that person to give us a couple of those Aces. They perceive a large Bhikkhuni Sangha as a halving of support & or prestige.
    If you are looking for logic in this….you won’t find it in the position and actions taken at WPP.

    • Dear Russell and An,

      Re. the question of the Buddha’s so-called ‘reluctance’ to ordain nuns, all we know for sure is that there are some ancient texts that tell a narrative where he refused initially to ordain Mahapajapati, and then later consented. It is a big stretch to infer from this that we know anything about what the Buddha’s attitude was, firstly because we don’t know how accurate the story is, and secondly because the story can be read in many ways.

      My own feeling, based on extensive research over many years, is that the Mahapajapati story is not the actual founding of the bhikkhuni order. We find a very different attitude in the Buddha’s encouragement to Bhadda Kundalakesa: ‘Come, Bhadda!’ It seems to me that these words, preserved in the verses of the nuns themselves (Therigatha), are more pertinent than the Mahapajapati fable, which is the work of monk redactors, I would suggest about 100-200 years after the Parinibbana.

      The motif of the initial refusal of nuns has been interpreted many ways. It seems to me the most plausible reading is that the story was originally a personal tale about Mahapajapati herself, and the Buddha’s reluctance to ordain her because of her attachment to him. In some versions the Buddha was said to refuse ordination to his father as well. Later the text came to be generalized to apply to all nuns.

      cheers

      sujato

  9. Hi,

    I have the full support for Bhikkuni ordination. Just unfortunate that this incidence has revealed the uglier side of human beings, eg. discrimination, incompassionate, etc.

    I felt that as long as Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Sujato and the nuns have full support of the lay community, the Bhikkuni tradition will be preserved.

    Sometimes it is hard to pin point who it is exactly who is against the ordination of the bhikkuni.

    I have known of an Ajahn who had a lot of pressure from a lay supporter. This lay supporter contributes to most of the expenses or the monastry. There was one occasion that I have heard that this Ajahn succumb to the pressure and did what was requested by the lay supporter. I think this is a very difficult situation for the Ajahn. It is important for the monastry to have continuous support in order to exist and to serve the vast community.

    I think from now on, lets rejoice for the ordained nun and lets not hold illwill against any other people who are against this. Thanks to Ajahn Sujato for putting this together so that we are aware of all this, so that we are not in the dark.

  10. there is no real reason for the differences – just conditions – the
    liberation is the same – i guess the tradition of maechis may be the
    reason – others have wondered why as lay people and anaharikas do
    that –

  11. I am disappointed and confused by this development. I always thought it was the Thai hierarchy that was forcing the WPP to desist from bhikkhuni ordinations. I am sure this is still true to some degree. I felt that within the WPPS itself a more enlightened view prevailed, and that the WPPS itself was a force against misogyny and discrimination. TBH. I thought they already ordained bhikkhunis at Amaravati and have done so for some time – so I am confused by these events. I am a supporter of the EST , and held them in the highest esteem , Reading some of the comments here, I am beginning to doubt that my support is well placed. I would appreciate any help in clarifying the picture . Has this “crisis” arisen because Bodhinaya took the further step of removing the discrimatory additional rules imposed on bhikkunis ?( such as the most venerable bhikkuni having to bow to the least venerable bhikkhu ) . Was this the “final straw” that drew this extreme sanction? Where do we, who thought of WPP,WPN, Amaravati as our monasteries go now?

  12. OK, so Ajahn Brahm is not a member of the WPP sangha. So what? If I understand correctly, he is still respected by all as a senior Theravada monk. He just can’t perform sangha-kamma with the WPP monks. Big deal…how often does he do that anyway?

    But I fear the accusations and the recrimination on this blog is encouraging all kinds of unskillful thoughts and speech, let alone divisions in the Theravada Buddhist community as us against them.

    I think we al need to be more mindful about what we write here.

  13. I agree with Yu Ban. I feel that we should take a step back and breathe. Not all monks are enlightened beings and there is no point to put blame to anyone. A lot of these monks are trying their best to learn and also teach the dhamma. I believe these monks should not be judged just by one decision that they made. It is equivalent to condemning a person to hell or heaven.

    I think if we are true supporter of the buddha, dhamma and sangha, this is an opportunity for us here to practice compassion. Even where there are views that disagree with us, lets not have the anger, lets agree to disagree.

  14. I am inclined to agree with Yu Ban and KK. Nothing has changed. A small fire has started. If we stop putting fuel on it it will go out by itself. Another formation has arisen that will cease in due course. If aversion and anger arise then Mara has overrun the mind and we are already defeated.

  15. Yes, I agree, it is important not to split further over this, either in our own minds or in the communities concerned. But thats what I feel that openning this debate up is all about. To let the elders (and juniors) of our sangha know that their decisions and actions affect all of us as well – it is the fourfold sangha to be considered in these things as Buddha-dhamma is established in the world, now more a global village. This forum is a way to implore our sangha elders to guide with openness and respect to all, to listen to feedback, to no longer act in an isolated way that protects the benefits of only a few.
    This is a movement of healing splits, in an honest, open way. It takes maturity and courage, not the use of power plays.

    • As this particular blog thread started around the discussion of the EST, from what I understand, it seems that at least some members of the EST had no idea about the 5 points imposed on the nuns. Some of them (maybe all) haven’t seen them either..
      So perhaps on behalf of the laity they represent (after all the EST invited the monastic sangha to the UK – not the other way round), they can also ask for transparency from the elder council.

  16. Dear bhante, I read in your “Bhikkhuni vinaya Studies” the many reasons why you think garudhamma 1 should be rejected. But you did not address what I felt was a very pertinent reason, that the bhikkhuni sangha was formed after the bhikkhu sangha. Thus, following the method of determining seniority established by the Vinaya, all bhikkhunis would be junior to any bhikkhu.

    • Hi Yu ban,

      Well, you know, I’ve been discussing and writing about all this for so long I kind of forget what I said where.

      Actually, I also used to think that was a relevant reason, but haven’t thought of it for many years, hence its absence.

      i think there are a number of problems. The basic one is that it skirts around the issue by justifying inequality through a legalism. I just can’t accept that we have to model all of Buddhism forever on such grounds.

      More directly, the garudhamma itself says nothing about the bhikkhuni Sangha being junior to the bhikkhu Sangha, it speaks only of a bhikkhuni and a bhikkhu. So any statement about it applying to the seniority between the Sanghas is just another interpretation.

      Further, if we applied that logic consistently, would we not have to admit that the laymen should be senior to the bhikkhus, as there were upasakas before there were bhikkhus? And there were laywomen before bhikkhunis, so that applies to. Similarly, there were samaneras before bhikkhunis (if the sequence in the Pali Vinaya is reliable), so they should be senior, but everywhere the bhikkhunis are senior to samaneras. The same applies to sikkhamanas.

      So this is a principle that is not actually enunciated in the texts, but is inferred to describe this one situation, and becomes ridiculous if we try to apply it generally.

      if we want to argue on such general principles, a more cogent line of reasoning would be to say that in every case the grouping with more precepts is ranked higher than that with less precepts – and this is a genuinely Buddhist principle, since (at least in theory) it judges people according to their ethics, not their gender. So since bhikkhunis have more precepts, it is they who should outrank the bhikkhus.

      I have no problem with that.

  17. If we use V = P x D ( where V = “venerability” , P = number of precepts , D = unbroken days of adherence to precepts ) then a bhikkhuni would at some point “overtake” a monk of prior ordination. This would be strange and clearly complicated to keep track of! This anomaly would disappear if the the precepts were equivalent.

  18. Ajahn Sujato,

    If my undertanding of the Buddhist history is correct, the additional precepts the Bhikkhunis have to keep are, in fact, to protect the Bhikkhunis as well as the overall ‘Sangha’. To me Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis are of the same level despite the different numbers of precepts. Apart from that, I totally agree with you that when it is not known who is enlightened, the number of precepts dictates the seniority in the Sangha.

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