While it is often said that bhikkhuni ordination is illegal or banned in Thailand, this claim rests on a very slender thread. There have been, to my knowledge, no public pronouncements on the matter by the current Mahatherasamakhom, the governing body of Thai Buddhism, whose authority stems from the Sangha Act of 1962. Those seeking an ‘official’ position must fall back on a ruling issued in 1928; it is usually assumed that the modern Thai Sangha still operates under the authority of this ruling.
Before looking at that ruling, let’s get ourselves in the mood; peruse some photos from Thailand in this period; even watch a short home movie of street life. At this time, Thailand was still an absolute Monarchy, four years from the bloodless revolution that would bring about the first democratic Constitution.
The Sangha at this time was governed under the first Thai Sangha Act, of 1902. Supreme Sangha authority was vested by that act in the Mahatherasamakhom, whose authority under Section 2 of the Act was absolute and may not be disputed or appealed. At the time the Act was promulgated there was no Sangharaja (literally, ‘King of the Sangha), and there is no mention of a Sangharaja’s powers in the Act itself. The King of Thailand, in fact, was the head of the Sangha.
In 1928 the first modern Thai bhikkhunis ordained. I will give their story in the words of their spiritual heir, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, from her article ‘Three Waves of Bhikkhuni Sangha Thailand’.
The first wave happened in the year 1928 when Narin Klung intended to revive the Bhikkhuni Sangha. His reason was that the Buddha himself established the four groups of Buddhists, namely the Bhikkhu, the Bhikkhunis, Upasikas and Upasakas. The fact that in Thailand we did not have Bhikkhuni Sangha we should revive what we were missing. He was very critical of the government, he was very critical of the existence of the situation of the Sangha at that time. Already he started a kind of a dhamma group where the members met every week to discuss about the situation and to discuss about the dharma as practiced in Thailand at that time. Later on he donated his house which he called Nariwong and later on it became Wat Nariwong for the Bhikkhuni Sangha. He had two of his daughters Sara, the elder daughter and Jongdi. The younger one ordained. They started as Samaneris and later on the older one was ordained as Bhikkhuni. We have a record of them, there was not just the two of them, but at least eight other nuns with them, we have a picture of them also. Because Narin Klung himself was very critical of other institutions, namely the government and the Sangha, it brought about much conflict between the two. So when the Sangha ordered the arrest of all these nuns, as soon as the police approached them, all the other nuns disrobed, only the two sisters remained and both of them were taken to the prison. The older one was jailed for a couple of days, the robes were removed from her body violently. Later on when they were freed they changed the color of the robe and they still remained as Bhikkhuni and Samaneri. They went out for alms and they were well received by the people, they said people offered them sufficient Dana to keep them going. But this movement came to an end when the older sister while going out for alms in the morning was snatched away by somebody coming on a horseback. And that brought about the closing of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in 1928.
The Sangha reacted very negatively, the media reacted negatively, there were only two newspapers which was run by women that supported them. The Sangharaja, the Supreme Patriarch sent out an order, the famous or infamous order of 1928 saying that all Thai Bhikkhus are forbidden to give ordination to women either as Sikkhamana, Bhikkhuni or Samaneri.
So that was the end of the first wave.
That’s the story. So when people tell you that it’s illegal to ordain bhikkhunis in Thailand, never forget what actually happened. The women ordained and practiced the Dhamma. By order of the Sangha authorities, the police arrested them; most disrobed, and the bravest ones were thrown in gaol and subject to violence. When they were released one of them was abducted by a man on horseback.
Remember this, never forget it. When they tell you how bhikkhuni ordination is illegal in Thailand, remember whose side they are taking. Instead of condemning this behaviour as brutal and uncivilized, they are giving their support to the rule that came from this act of thuggery.
As a direct result of this affair, the following rule was announced. I quote the rule from an online source, and I cannot vouch for it, although it seems reliable enough.
“It is unallowable for any Bhikkhu to give the Going-Forth to Women
Any woman who wishes to ordain as a Samaneri, in accordance with the Buddha’s allowances, has to be ordained by a fully ordained Bhikkhuni. The Buddha laid down the rule that only a Bhikkhuni over 12 vassas is eligible to be a Preceptor (pavattini).
The Buddha did not allow for a Bhikkhu to be the preceptor in this ceremony. Unfortunately, the Bhikkhuni lineage has since faded and died out. Since there is no more fully-fledged Bhikkhunis to pass on the lineage, there is henceforth no Samaneris who have obtained a proper ordination from a fully-fledged Bhikkhuni.
Therefore both the Bhikkhuni and Samaneri lineage has died out. So any Bhikkhu who gives the going forth to a woman to become a Samaneri, it can be said that that Bhikkhu is not acting in accordance with the regulations the Buddha laid down. In essence, he is following his own guidelines and diverging from the guidelines that the Buddha laid down. This is something that will jeopardize the Buddhist Religion and is not a good example for other Bhikkhus.
Therefore, all monks and novices, in both Nikayas are forbidden to ordain any woman as a Bhikkhuni, Sikkhamana, or Samaneri from this day forth.”
– Phra Bancha Somdet Phra Sangharacha Jiao Gromluang Jinawarn Siriwad (18 June 2471)
An Official Announcement from the Sangha Committee Meeting minutes, Book 16 p157
It is sometimes said that this rule is promulgated under the ‘Sangha Act’ of 1928 – this is false, there is no such Act. I am not altogether sure of the exact legal status of the rule; it is authorized by the Sangharaja, who is not mentioned in the governing Sangha Act of the time, and is said to be an announcement from the minutes of the Sangha Committee. There is no doubt this was intended as a strict rule against bhikkhuni ordination at the time.
Of course, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Thailand became a democracy, and changed its Sangha Act twice. Our understanding of the Vinaya and the historical position of bhikkhunis has dramatically grown. I would give this edict some credit, for it does make a rational argument, unlike the recent statements from WPP, which eschew any attempt at a Vinaya argument and base themselves solely on power. However, the ruling makes a number of crucial factual errors:
1. The Pali Vinaya does not state that only a bhikkhuni can give samaneri ordination.
2. The Pali Vinaya explictly states that bhikkhus can give bhikkhuni ordination.
3. Bhikkhunis still exist through the Dharmaguptaka lineage in East Asia.
These mistakes are simple ones, yet they remain largely unacknowledged in the Thai Sangha.
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.
It is curious that this ruling makes samaneri ordination just as much of a problem as bhikkhuni ordination. It’s women in robes that is the worry, not bhikkhunis alone. This is quite different from the current climate of opinion, where the Dhammasara samaneris were considered no problem, as indeed are the samaneri-like siladharas in England. Even Ajahn Gunha, Ajahn Chah’s nephew, who is beloved and revered as a meditation master in his own right, ordained samaneris until he was forced by the local authorities to stop.
The legal status of the ruling is obscure. No-one, so far as I know, has tried to test this in court. When Voramai Kabilsingh was accused before the Mahatherasamakhom in 1956, her ‘crime’ was allegedly imitating a bhikkhu(!), not the fact that she had ordained as a samaneri. She was excused because her preceptor was a member of the Mahatherasamakhom(!) The same monk, Phra Prommuni, was also the teacher of the current king when he was ordained(!) Phra Prommuni argued that her light-yellow robe was a different color to that of the bhikkhus, so she was excused(!)
The legal situation was reviewed recently. The following is the most accurate account I have found, from ‘Making fields of merit: Buddhist female ascetics and gendered orders in Thailand’ by Monica Lindberg Falk, pg. 243.
Since October 2002, the bhikkhuni issue has been of special interest to the Thai Senate Committee on Women, Youth, and Elderly. The board of senators (upper house) set up a sub-committee led by a female senator, Rabiabrat Pongpanit, to investigate the possibility of establishing the bhikkhuni order in Thailand. A study group spent six months researching the topic. They found that the bhikkhuni order did not defy the principles of Buddhism. Senator Rabiabrat said the ban issued in 1928 by the Supreme Patriarch prohibiting monks from ordaining women as novices or female monks should be revoked because it violated the constitution, which enshrines gender equality and freedom of faith. Senator Rabiabrat and the senatorial sub-committee presented their study to the parliament on the 11 March 2003. The ensuing discussions with representatives of the Sangha council have so far not led to sanctioning of a bhikkhuni order in Thailand. The deputy prime minister has announced that the bhikkhuni issue is not a case for the secular constitution, but he has urged the Sangha’s Council of Elders to consider the bhikkhuni sangha. In February 2004 the National Buddhist Bureau stated in reply to the senate proposal that there can never be bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand due to the irretrievable loss in the lineage of Theravada bhikkhuni order and lack of a bhikkhuni preceptor.
So there has been research done, and, as always, when intelligent research is done by sympathetic people, they reach the obvious conclusion: bhikkhuni ordination can and should be reinstated. The ban clearly contradicts the spirit of the secular constitution. This is a fine point. The deputy prime minister said that the constitution should not decide the matter (which incidentally places the Thai Sangha in a peculiarly similar situation to the religious right in Australia). Nevertheless, the 1928 ruling is still, according to the opinion of the Senate inquiry, against the constitution and cannot stand. The deputy prime minister’s position, it would seem to me, does not imply that the 1928 ruling is legally valid. It merely opines that the decision on bhikkhuni ordination should not be decided by the constitution. If the 1928 ruling cannot stand, the matter must be considered again on its own merits and a solution found that is in accordance with the Constitution. Since the National Buddhist Bureau’s response merely restated the original position of the 1928 ruling, it too would be subject to the same constitutional criticism.
There is no hint of how the National Buddhist Bureau actually responded to the research done by the senate subcommittee. Again, I am not sure of the actual status of this statement, but in any case it is clearly not a ruling of the Mahatherasamakhom. I have heard from other sources that the real situation was that one group lobbied on behalf of the bhikkhuni order and another for a re-invigorated mae chi movement. In fact, neither of these eventuated, and the situation languishes undecided and unreformed.
So there we have it. An archaic rule, made by an absolutist patriarchy that saw fit to imprison women for the crime of ordaining, which is based on a misreading of the Vinaya and in ignorance of the historical situation, which has not been tested for 80 years, and which has been declared unconstitutional by the Thai Senate sub-committee as it clearly violates the basic principles of gender equity and freedom of religion.
This is the legal basis on which the WPP Sangha saw fit to expel Ajahn Brahm and his monastery.
56 thoughts on “The 1928 bhikkhuni ban”
Well done BS. I never thought that I would find myself writing on a Blogg page, especially a Buddhist one. But you seem to be finally awakening me out of a sleep of not doing or saying anything until too late. Time and time again I see rules and procedures, doctrines and dogmas, myths and legends used to protect a power base. And so often I see myself and others not challenging or doing or saying what is right because of fear or laziness or both. The established traditions in government, business, and religion seemed to have formed a habit of using ‘the rules and procedures’ to protect themselves and their interests, threatening or actually using punitive punishment. And, ‘Spiritual’ traditions seem to be amongst the worst at using rules, myths and legends, or simply ignoring human suffering to protect themselves. Well done to you for having the courage and drive to state this as it is. Cheers.
As I stated elsewhere in this blog, I am (and I am sure many others are) eagerly awaiting the ‘considered response’ from Luang Por Sumedho and the rest of the WPP monks on just two simple questions.
1. Do they fully support bhikkhuni ordinations?
2. Do they agree that the ordinations done on 22nd October 2009 fully complies with vinaya?
All they have to say is either yes or no for the above questions and that would settle this issue forever!
Thanks, Bhante Sujato for this great piece of information.
Well, in asking clear questions and expecting clear answers, I can only hope you’ll have better luck than I have.
This issue is no longer a strictly Buddhist one. It has made the jump into the secular press where it received a sympathetic report.
According to this article in the Bangkok Post (by a reporter with a respected track record of religious reporting) a new law is being mooted in Thailand which would make it punishable by 10-25 years in prison to “imitate” or “distort” Buddhist teaching. I wonder who decides what is an imitation or distortion? If this law is passed, perhaps Ajahns B and S will have to avoid travelling to Thailand for fear of being arrested and imprisoned.
Still, at least it’s not beheading or burning at the stake, it’s only 25 years in prison. We are fortunate that Buddhism is a compassionate religion.
If this law were to applied properly, the Thai prisons would get pretty full, pretty soon.
I would have a third question for Sumedho.
3 Exactly how do the Five Points support the siladharas in better practicing the dharma (since that is the only purpose of the Vinaya)?
The Bangkok Post article mentioned above seems to have been old (I tried to trace it, it seems to be from 2007); i.e. there is no indication whether or not the proposed effects have been set up by now. Perhaps someone from Thailand can clarify this.
The ‘Support and Protection for Buddhism’ Bill was still being discussed in May 2008, see article from the Bangkok Post here:http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=52,6389,0,0,1,0
There has been no subsequent discussion of it (under that name) in the same paper, so I wonder what has happened to it. On a more cheery note, there is a lovely article on the BSWA bhikkhuni ordination, from the Bangkok Post, at:
Dear Bhante Sujato, thank you so much for clarifying this historical event that happened in Thailand and also clearly pointing out that the Buddha did allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunis. This makes sense (very much) and is in line with Dhamma teachings as well. Usually people gain faith in the Dhamma and ask to go forth from a monastic who inspired them to practice the path, who inspired them that there is a way to end suffering/existence. So it would be a big help and support in one’s practice if they get ordained by the monastic who inspired them. It just helps:) for instance, if a man hears inspiring dhamma teachings from a bhikkhuni and gains faith in the Buddha and the path and asks to go forth. And vice versa, a female who gains faith through the teachings and examples of a bhikkhu would ask the bhikkhu to go forth: To go forth for the ending of all suffering and the realization of nibbana:). It just seems so natural and right 🙂 Thank you for making that point clear. It’s what i intuitively felt when coming across Dhamma and before coming across this cultural and political baggage. Also it is worth keeping in mind how gender is such a superficial difference and mind, meditation and the path is the same. Both have the ability to renounce EVERYTHING! 🙂 nibbana… 🙂
So it would be very good if we preserve such a pure an innocent way of starting a monastic path… One hears the Dhamma from an Ariyan (or wise monastic explaining suttas), sees the way out of suffering, and out of joy asks to go forth. It was simple, it would be beautiful to preserve that simplicity.
From Patrick Butler
In the UK there is support from most men in the lay comnmunity for women to be treated equally and to recieve full Bikkhuni ordination.
I started hearing about secret coercion of women to accept permanent Siladhara status a few months ago . I could hardly believe it.Then I made a comment on LP Sumedho’s fan page and it was deleted ( cowardly).
Many of the women were so grief stricken and scared at the prospect of being thrown out of the places they’d taken refuge in for years that they would not speak out. They have been secretly required to agree to 5 points aaccepting the permanent inferiority of women on pain of expulsion and a ban on further feamle ordinations by Sumedho. Many have said they just signed under pressure while deeply disagreeing.
If Sumedho or other proud , form-grasping senior monks think signatures coercively obtained in secret without the knowledge of the lay community constitute a permanent acceptance or closing of the issue they are self-deluding…. Read More
Wow, you mean they were actually asked to sign something admitting this 5 points?
Amazing. The English disciples should reconsider giving dana to these sorts of monks.
History has revealed that women have been suppressed and deprived of opportunities in education, employment, politics and even the pursuit of spirituality. It wasn’t that long ago when women were not given the opportunity for higher education or even allowed to vote. Today, much has changed and significant progress has been witnessed over the last 30 years.
However, in the religious sphere, men have continued to use holy texts to justify discrimination against women. Given that the aim of religion is to liberate, suppression or deprivation of rights for women goes against the grain of what religion was meant to be.
Progress should not be confined to only the non-religious space, especially when the change is for the greater good. However, progress cannot happen unless we are willing to question traditions and conventions. If religion or rules are unquestionable, it poses great dangers as it can be easily manipulated to mislead and to control a segment of the community.
It is also important to understand the psychological motivation of discriminatory practices. As discrimination is often born out of insecurity and egoism, we need to consider how men need to be assisted to develop greater confidence so that women under their influence will be treated with greater respect and be given fairer consideration.
“It is also important to understand the psychological motivation of discriminatory practices. As discrimination is often born out of insecurity and egoism, we need to consider how men need to be assisted to develop greater confidence so that women under their influence will be treated with greater respect and be given fairer consideration.”
Great call, Angie!
I’ll dond that.
Angie’s point is central in this whole debate. The burden of proof does not lie with those in support of gender equity. The Hamburg Congress was a good illustration of this. A more rounded, complete and compelling set of arguments in support of bhikkhuni ordination you won’t find. Yet the final summation was “more research needed to convince the narrow-minded geshes”.
No, there has bee enough research. Centuries of it, in fact.
The burden of proof lies with those who are caught in resistance to equity. The lens of enquiry needs to be turned inward by those who block the healthy evolution of the 4-fold sangha. Let’s not wear ourselves out furnishing comprehensive and clear responses to all the unreasonable excuses that hinder women’s access to a valid place within buddhism. Let’s hold up the mirror to those who make the excuses. What do they see? What do they need?
Using a discourse that has emerged from a higher level of development than the level from which a problem is festering is futile.
Or in short: there’s no point trying to reason with bigots.
Communicate with, make friends with, love unconditionally- yes.
Reason with? – waste of time.
And I’ll dond that!
Ah ha. Dond. Thank you!
Obviously been neglecting my telly practice. Sorry.
I respect Ajahn Sumedho and, like many others, I desperately need to hear what Ajahn would say. I found this on the Forest Sangha website:
Message from Luang Por Sumedho
news > monasteries
Written by Luang Por Sumedho
Thursday, 05 November 2009 18:46
I’m aware that currently there are certain misunderstandings regarding our communities in Europe that may be causing hurt and confusion for some people. We plan to offer a response after careful consideration together.
[link] (mp3) Download Luang Por Sumedho’s recent talk
– 5th November -, ‘Blessing the Nuns going to the USA’
However, there is no response from him yet…
I remember (please forgive me if my memory fails me) listening to Ajahn Brahm’s talk on Bhikkhuni ordination and he mentioned that Ajahn Sumedho had been advocating Bhikkhuni ordination for so long and now that he was getting old, he would leave that to the new generation of monks.
Perhaps Ajahn Sujato can shed light on this — I’m aware that people tend to remember what they want to remember, and I might have got it wrong. But I really do hope that Ajahn Sumedho supports the idea. If he did disagree with the October ordination, I hope that he had very sound reasons.
BTW, after listening to Ajahn Brahms’ talk on Nov 6, I am quite relieved to hear carefree vibes from Ajahn Brahm. With great admiration and respect for him, it would sadden me greatly to see him upset.
Don’t worry, Dheerayupa, why would AB get upset at the clattering of empty vessels, when as he well knows, indeed as Ajahn Chah taught him – there’s no-one there!
I think you must have misremembered one of Ajahn Brahm’s talks. Ajahn Sumedho has never favored bhikkhuni ordination. While one does hear different things (I personally do not know Ajahn Sumedho very well) most reports say that he is opposed to bhikkhuni ordination, at least in the WPP tradition.
What Ajahn Brahm has said, however, is that bhikkhuni ordination is something that Ajahn Sumedho would rather not get involved in, in part due to his age. He is semi-retired now. Unfortunately, with the Five Points we can now see that he is still very much involved.
Mahatherasamakhom — who are these people? Why do they have so much power?
Do they proivde monetary aids to western monasteries? what is their hold on these people?
This Mahatherasamakhom sound like fundamentalist mullahs.. By association anyone who cows down to them is guilty of perpetrating crime against women.
I was listening to Ajahn Sujato’s talk and he says his sister mentioned to him that she has never found a religion where she felt welcome as a woman. I was totally able to relate to that. Yet, I came into Buddhist practices totally ignorant of the very issues I was running away from.
Shocking! Shocking! I never suspected this from a ‘Buddhist’ country, and monks who have practiced for years. What have they been meditating on? what atrocities to commit against women? how many different ways to oppress them?
This is not Buddhism. This is anti-womenism.
I have a wooden carving plaque in my bathroom that shows an unsuspected guy jumping off a cliff, and as he jumps he is falling right into the open jaws of a crocodile! His expression is- eyes wide open, and jaw dropping – in total shock! I am that guy! —escaped all traditional religions- only to realise that after 8 years of traveling a lonely path, trusting in teachers along the way, I have been blissfully falling into the waters swarming with reptilian brains.
I am feeling the creeps. The mess we have created around the Buddha and Jesus. This is all so unbelievable !!
Sometimes when I watch the news and world affairs, the creative atrocities of one human being against another, the complacency of those in leadership positions, I wonder whether I am living among other humans– or is there another species posing as humans.
The Mahatherasamakhom is the ruling body of Thai Buddhism, instituted under the Thai Sangha Act of 1962. It is comprised of very old monks, several of whom, including the Sangharaja, Somdet Nyanasamvara, are hospitalized. The acting Sangharaja is Somdet Buddhajahn (Kiaw).
As you can see from these Wikipedia articles, these monks have been not without controversy in Thailand. In fact it is widely agreed that the existing structures are dysfunctional, but there has been no agreement on how to reform them. There are several key figures here: Sangharaja Nyanasamvara; the Thai king; and Ajahn Maha Bua. My feeling is that real change won’t happen until these pass away and a new order – for better or worse – appears.
You can see from these articles that there has been considerable tension between Somdet Buddhajahn and the forest monks led by Ajahn Maha Bua. When I was at Wat Nanachat in 2002, i was told about this in some detail, especially by Ajahn Nyanadhammo. He said, if my memory serves me well, that a reform bill had been presented to the Thai parliament with the support of Somdet Buddhajahn. That bill included a provision that all monstery funds over, i think, 3000 baht, should be lodged with the central authorities in Bangkok (!) It also banned monasteries bigger than, i think, 7 acres or so. That last provision was directly aimed at the forest monasteries, which typically are very large. They were built originally in waste land or wilderness, but with the passage of time this has become very valuable real estate. Hence the move from Bangkok to pull the rug out from the prestigious and influential forest tradition.
This forest monks were up in arms, and held a big meeting at Wat Asokaram near Bangkok. (WPP did not participate.) They apparently sent Somdet Buddhajahn a formal notification of admonition. Unfortunately, their position was grounded on Ajahn Maha Bua’s conservative and nationalistic politics, insisting, not that the Sangha should be reformed according to the Vinaya, but that appointment of the Sangharaja should be by the King of Thailand. (This was formerly the case, but was changed in 1991.) This was so that Somdet Buddhajahn, who is evidently not favored by the Palace, would not be appointed the next Sangharaja.
I trust the irony of all this does not escape you.
However, I must say in the Mahatherasamakhom’s defence that, while they are not an effective governing body, at least they do not usually pretend to be one. They typically play a very back seat role and are not actively authoritarian, even though they are set up under an authoritarian legislation. Somdet Buddhajahn is by all accounts and intelligent and perceptive monk. His response to the delegation from WPP was measured and cautious. There has been no hint of expulsion or any punitive actions against Ajahn Brahm from the Mahatherasamakhom, and I do not expect to see any. Their first priority will be to avoid the kind of international scandal that WPP’s actions have generated. If they can just quietly let this go by, I think they will. My sense is that they will only act further if they are actively pressured to do so. We’ll have to wait and see if this happens.
As far as monetary support, no there is nothing like this. Each monastery is self-financed. Even in the more closely-knit circles of WPP, there is no regular mechanism for financial support. It is more like a friendly club: if someone needs help, they’ll approach one of the better supported branches, and usually something can be worked out.
The Mahatherasamakhom really does little. It does help organize some education for the Sangha, although this is of generally poor quality. But even something simple like visas for foreign monks is a constant headache in Thailand. In Sri Lanka, with no equivalent ruling body, it is much easier for overseas monastics to get visas.
My view is that Thai Buddhism would be far better off simply abolishing the Sangha Act and dissolving the whole hierarchy. Apart from Myanmar (!) no other Buddhist country has a similar system, and they often work much better. In Taiwan, for example, the standards of education in the Sangha are much better than Thailand, and this has come about not through Government control, but through the initiative and energy of many senior Sangha members.
The real purpose of the Sangha Act was to aid the integration and protection of Thailand as a nation, originally in the face of the colonial threat, and later of the communist threat. The outcome was that Thailand survived fairly well through that very troubled time, and has maintained a country in far better shape than most of its neighbours. But the difficulties it was facing then are now long in the past, and there is no serious external threat to Thai national integrity any more.
So that’s the Sujato Solution: Get rid of the centralized control; encourage modern, realistic Buddhist education for all, especially Sangha; and allow monasteries to thrive or disappear on their merits.
Dream, dream, dream…
Dear respectable Ajahn,
A question keeps bugging me but seems no where to be raised:
Does the action of Ajahn Brahm amount to causing schism in the Sangha?
Thank you for your clarification.
No one of any importance.
You are indeed someone of great importance! Anyone who cares enough about humanity to question and inquire in this issue is doing us all a great service.
I have addressed this question elsewhere. But briefly: Ajahn Brahm did nothing that could be construed as causing a schism. Nor has the WPP Sangha made any such claim. There is no schism, just the de-listing of Bodhinyana as a branch monastery of WPP.
The WPP ajahns are simply on the wrong side of history. Their harsh treatment, including their ex-communication of Ajahn Brahm, shows their belligerent opposition towards bhikkhuni ordination, no matter how much they try to camouflage or deny it. If they truly, sincerely and staunchly support bhikkhuni ordination they would have been sympathetic, even supportive, of Ajahn Brahm’s action. They would have commended him for doing what they could not do. (Is it because they dared not [for fear of the illusive Mahatherasamakhom [from whom we have not heard even a word on the subject!] or is it because they [or a majority of them] are vehemently against bhikkhuni ordination but are afraid to say so, because deep down they know all the reasons that have often been cited against the revival of bhikkhuni ordination have been shown to be petty and hollow?) If they really support bhikkhuni ordination they would have looked for ways and means to help Ajahn Brahm to get the ordination recognized by the Mahatherasamakom and the Theravadin orthodoxy. But not only did they not do so, they meted out the harshest possible punishment against Ajahn Brahm! Talk of adding insult to injury!
As Ajahn Sujato had said elsewhere, it is, for the WPP ajahns, all about power and control and not about giving women their long overdue right to bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravadan tradition. Simply put, the WPP ajahns have their ego dented because they have not been consulted and now they are throwing a tantrum by throwing the book at Ajahn Brahm. Anyway, it would have been a waste of time consulting them, because by now it must be clear for all to see that, for all that their posturing, the WPP ajahns are, in fact, terribly prejudiced and dead against bhikkhuni ordination. Action speaks louder than words, and their harsh and cruel judgement of Ajahn Brahm’s action speaks volumes for itself. On hindsight, Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Sujato are proven right (that there was no point in consulting the WPP ajahns), though one must add that it needn’t take much hindsight, after all, to see how the WPP ajahns would react.
All this talk about not being consulted, about the greater harmony of the WPP ajahns, about the issue to be discussed at the coming WAM meeting, blah, blah, blah, are all just hogwash and a camouflage for their dented ego and their opposition towards the revival of bhikkhuni ordination.
Their intended punitive action against Ajahn Brahm (they even deny that it is punitive!) has backfired! Now the issue has exploded in the face of the Buddhist World. It is now even been reported and commented upon in the Shambhala Sun and Wisdom Publications websites in America, the examiner.com in Australia, etc.
Common sense (and is not wisdom common sense?) and historical facts dictate that women should be returned their right to ordination in the Theravadin and Tibetan traditions. Justice delayed is justice denied, and for how many centuries already has this justice been denied our sisters! How can we allow a bunch of misogynistic, cowardly, power-hungry and in-denial monks to continue to thwart the long-overdue ordination of womenfolk? They even want Ajahn Brahm to declare the ordination null and void! What cheek! What insult! What gross injustice to womenfolk they want to continue to perpetuate, when even the ordination had been carefully carried out fully in accordance with Vinaya rules!
Some people say we should not use strong words, that we should couch our language in diplomatic speech. I say the time for diplomacy is long past. No words can be strong enough for us to use to condemn the continued refusal to recognise the right of womenfolk to bhikkhuni ordination. To keep quiet or to speak ever so gently…would only embolden even further the Buddhist tyrants and dictators in our midst!
The WPP ajahns are well on the wrong side of history. They will be found deeply flawed, not only now, but by posterity, for their opposition towards the ordination of women. In conclusion I would like to quote the following from the Wisdom Publications blog:
“Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Buddhist nun and a professor of Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, says in Dignity and Discipline, “Just as countries who refuse women the right to vote are considered backward today, Buddhists will certainly go down on the wrong side of history if they deny fundamental rights and freedoms to women…Recognizing full ordination for women is not only a matter of social justice, it is also simply a matter of common sense.”
Thanks to Yu Ban for dropping a link to my article on Examiner earlier! _/\_
This speaks to a larger issue, as Gita pointed out. Eastern societies have their own central sanghas, specific to country and culture, to support the monks, nuns, and laypeople. In the West we have been denied this privilege for the most part because of the ‘threat to the purity of the Dhamma’, as if Western Buddhists are unworthy of transmitting the Dhamma to people in our own culture. This is despite the masses of wonderful Western monks and nuns like Ajahn Brahm, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Pema Chodron, and many many more. Anyone on the other side of the issue who doubts this is true, notice the nationality of Ajahn Sumedho. ‘Western’ Buddhism is not a dirty word, but I frequently hear it spoken with contempt, as if it is a distortion of the Dhamma instead of another expression of it.
To this end I wrote another article on the possibilities that this unfortunate disagreement between Wat Pong and Ajahn Brahm has brought to light- that western societies have proved themselves able to commit sincerely to the path that the Buddha taught, and that we deserve to have our own Dhamma door formally recognized just as Thailand, Japan, and Tibet have theirs (amongst others).
We could formalize the relationship of the different schools and sanghas by not debating the issue of whether Buddhism is a religion anymore and uniting under the flag of Buddhism. Our women could be ordained without issue and we could promote the causes unique to our culture. However, we can’t do this unless we start agreeing on what Buddhism is. The issues about the term ‘religion’ are just semantics, in the end- we are only hurting ourselves.
The ordination ceremony seems to have revealed assumptions made. I think what is revealed is that the origins of the division between monks and nuns itself is based on cultural norms. I’m speaking of patriarchy and hetero sexism. It appears the Buddha was ignorant of the paradigm of homosexuality, so he simply separated the men from the women. It isn’t surprising that this came about at that time. The identity of homosexuality didn’t exist as it does today. But it reveals that the teachings of the Dhamma and those teachings of the rules set up to pass it on are not equivalent to each other. The rules inevitably relate to the society and lay outside the Dhamma itself, they are meant as supportive instruments for the teaching of the Dhamma. Now that the terms of understanding sexual identity have grown to now include homosexuality the rules of the past seem impure. So here we are now with this traditional organization floundering in its own karmic wake. It isn’t surprising, nor is it a problem caused by the ordinations. The suffering comes from dogmatic acceptance of ancient rules regardless of the nature of their origins. There is no denying their intentions to be helpful, nor to deny that at the same time they have become regressively confused beliefs. Time to let go.
There’s a number of interesting things here. It is true that homosexuality as a sense of identity as we know it today was not recognized in ancient India, but there are plenty of mentions of gay and lesbian acts in the Vinaya, and they are treated in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way. There is very little problem around homosexuality in Buddhism, and even within the Sangha. Of course, any sexual acts are forbidden in the Vinaya, but homosexual acts are no different from straight.
A more problematic area is in other forms of alternative genders: eunuchs, hermaphrodites, trans-sexuals… While none of these are ethical issues for Buddhists, there are some rules in the Vinaya, for example, that would prohibit ordination by someone who had dual sex-organs. The problem appears to lie with the uncomfortable blurring of the distinct gender categories. These issues have not been studied deeply or tested within the Sangha. Yet.
Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am aware of those issues cited, but I am pointing to the intention behind the separation. The same intention cannot be followed through when it comes to Gays and Lesbians within the monasteries. It is based on a heterosexual model. If desire cannot be internally addressed then the basic issue of the individual’s commitment is what and should be addressed. I see no need to separate the nuns from the monks, and one should be able to ordain the other. I know it is a major difference but it is an assumption that lays underneath this entire issue at hand.
Watching this very much from the sidelines, it seems that there’s a larger issue here that at the moment is mostly eclipsed by the immediate kerfuffle about the WPP, power and gender.
Given the revolutionary nature of the events, it’s easy to forget that this entire process involves only one relatively small part of the larger Theravada tradition. The effect is potentially pretty limited. For example, were you to ask any western 10-precept nun ordained in a Burmese tradition, you’d find that none of this has any effect on her whatsoever. As far as Burmese Sayadaws are concerned, Bhikkhuni ordination is totally impossible, beyond the pale.
And were she to sacrifice the link with her teachers (and the very genuine support for practice and study that women are offered in Burma) to return to the west for higher ordination, there would be no guarantee that her samanera ordination would even be considered valid, no matter how many years she had in robes. Not the most enticing of options.
So if a complete four-fold assembly is ever to firmly take root and to thrive in the west, we westerners may need to find a way to come together in a way that transcends the cultural roots of _all_ our traditions.
Our task may ultimately be to form something new and uniquely western–not Thai Forest, nor Mahasi, nor Sri Lankan…nor whatever. To outgrow our ‘Asian parents’ and find our own way in the world–without sacrificing either the strength and purity of the teachings. To create monasteries where western men and women can live and train regardless of their practice roots, while holding a pure, congruent, and egalitarian Vinaya. Where people are welcomed based purely on Dhammavinaya, not on cultural lineage–or gender.
This is not unknown in of Buddhism–witness the early and rich histories of places like Nalanda. And now, the 21st century world is too small and too obviously connected for parochial divisions to be justifiable anymore.
Equality of women is the main issue that could potentially catalyze the formation of truly unified and ‘mainstream’ western sangha–as we westerners generally hold gender equality as a basic assumption, in contrast to our eastern brothers and sisters.
So an open question to everyone–and to you, Ajahn with your deep understanding of both the present situation and the historical context: is this where this could potentially go, or is it ‘too early’, a pipe dream?
I definitely think we need to move towards a new conception of Buddhism. My only quibble would be your easy assumption that this is a east/west divide. My experience has been that this is not it at all. As just one example, see my account of our visit from several senior bhikkhus from the Vietnamese mendicant tradition. of course there are issues of culture and tradition at work, but they play out in all kinds of complex ways in actual practice. Whatever the new Buddhism will be, it will be primarily global, and find its individual voices in each location.
The plight of the nuns in Myanmar and Thailand will indeed not be directly affected by what we have done. But the indirect ramifications will spread far and wide. I’ve already heard of one Burmese nun who heard of our ordination and then thought she might look to bhikkhuni ordination.
For an interesting take on a new kind of Buddhism that catches up with the old kind of Buddhism, check out Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies, available from http://www.santifm.org.
Dear Ajahn Sujato,
While we are dreaming of developing a new conception of Buddhism, I wonder if you might turn your scholarly attention to the ‘only cheese and chocolate after midday’ rule. I mean it’s not even healthy! I don’t want (as a woman) to be seen to be tempting anyone off the true path, but – how about an apple instead?
Dear Barbara and all cheese eaters,
Just to let you know that Santi FM emphatically belongs to the non-cheese eating sect, and we hereby condemn, abhor, and anathemize those vile and depraved eaters of cheese! Chocolate, of course, is a completely different matter.
For those of you scratching your heads right now, yes it’s true, while the Buddhist Vinaya does not allow eating food in the afternoon, there are various ‘allowables’, which these days are interpreted by some to include cheese and dark chocolate. Curiously enough, Barbara, I’ve heard that early in the 20th century the Burmese monks did take apples as allowable, so there you go.
This issue is one that has been debated on a semi-annual basis in WPP, and constitutes one of their more typical topics of dissension. One year, Ajahn Jayasaro gave a list of reasons why he thought cheese should be unallowable, only to have one of the Thai Ajahn retort, ‘Well, it was you western monks who told us we could eat it in the first place!’
One year, following the discussion it was decided to revoke the previous decision and ban cheese once more. After the meeting, refreshments were called for, and the plates of cheese came out. It’s great how they can let go of some things…
Chocolate deficiency is a little-kown scourge of our time and I applaud Santi FM’s principled stand on this matter.
Sadhu! David. I’m sure when the history of this all gets written, things will appear in their proper perspective. Bhikkhuni ordination will be seen as the minor event that it is, and the true significance cheese & chocolate will become clear.
For it was written: Blessed are the cheesemakers.
Incredibly, it seems that the war between the chocolate and cheese factions in the Sangha has erupted into the broader society, and now there’s a war between Kraft and Cadburys. I can only hope that these good people come to their senses and realize that, in the end of the day, we’ve all got stomachs.
I think you’ll find that this applied to manufacturers of all dairy products, including milk chocolate, but excluding manufacturers of plain chocolate with a cocoa solids content of more than 69.9%.
Also: cheese is made with the help of (dead) cows’ stomachs isn’t it?
You can get many nice cheeses that are made without rennet (calf enzymes) for vegetarians. There are also some vegan cheeses available but I wouldn’t press these on anyone, not even enlightened beings!
The petition calling for bhikkhuni ordination and gender equality in the forest sangha is now up at: http://new.ipetitions.com/petition/bhikkhuni-ordination/
I agree with your above assessment. So, though I am totally supportive of Bhikkhuni ordination Ajahn Brahm’s and your involvement in the Oct Bhikkhuni ordination, I would like us all to think twice about filing a petition to the Mahatherasamakhom as cited here:
Please you all kindly re-consider your action.
The petition is not intended for the Mahatherasamakhom, but primarily for the Western branches of the Ajahn Chah tradition.
Your comment is both witty and inspiring us to the real spirit of the rule. 🙂
I, for one, will offer all my merits for the monks who ordained these Bhikkunis!
Thank you Dhamma Friends for the chocolate and cheese and the new Aussie additions like “dond” to my vocabulary. First time, I have belly laughed since I got wind of the “expulsion”. Ease and second wind are returning. 🙂
I’ve noticed that on dhammalight website is now referring to some rulings of the Mahatherasamakhom, apparently based on their meetings in 1984 and 1987. This was again reinforced in 2001 by the current Sangharaja (Nyanasamvara, not the current acting head of the Sangha, Somdet Buddhajahn). The site does not give any references, so i can’t evaluate these claims. To understand the issue we would need to see the actual statements that emerged from these meetings, not just a vague report.
My sources say that the Mahatherasmakhom has not made any official ruling on the matter; they are good sources, and I trust them. But of course even the best sources can make mistakes.
These rulings came out before the 2003 Senate inquiry, so it would seem that they all fall under the findings of that inquiry, that is, they are illegal as they violate the constitutional rights of religious freedom and gender equality.
My understanding of the legality is that in such a case, the legal situation is formally undecided until it is tested in court. Until such time, however, one should assume that the highest level ruling related to the law is probably valid. That is to say, lacking a higher level ruling on the matter, the Senate inquiry’s recommendation should be followed. Of course the Thai Sangha authorities have rejected this. As I say, it will only be settled in a court, which is exceedingly unlikely.
Regardless of the balance of legal arguments, there can be no doubt that the Senate inquiry’s ethical argument is watertight: banning bhikkhuni ordination is in violation of the fundamental human rights to freedom of religious observance and gender equality.
It’s great to see that dhammalight are taking this seriously, and seeking a genuine legal basis for their claim that bhikkhuni ordination is against Thai law. It’s taken a long time, and is happening in a typically weird way, but it’s a good sign.
There is, of course, still no hint of any penalty for disregarding this ruling, so the actions of WPP are still entirely based on their own ad hoc decision, not on Thai law.
I must confess I am taken a little aback by this turn of events. Knowing the background to the 1928 ruling, I figured that the anti-bhikkhuni faction would want to bury this sad and violent piece of history as far as possible. Instead I find that they are using it as a justification for their present actions.
It does change one claim that I have made: I have criticized those who have expelled Ajahn Brahm on the basis of non-existent laws. Now I acknowledge that they at least genuinely believe that there is a legal basis. I apologize and retract those previous statements.
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