As the dust settles and life gets back to somewhere near normal, what next? Bhikkhuni ordination, despite all obstacles, has been accomplished in the Forest Tradition, and the task of living life in the Dhamma now calls to us.
But things will never be the same. The acrimony, the accusations, the very public spat of the ordinations will leave its mark. The naïve image of the Thai Forest Tradition as being somehow pure and pristine, divorced from politics and spiritual, is over. Which is a good thing. Its passing is one more signifier of the end of an era, the end of the West’s romantic vision of the East and the entry into a more complex, more realistic vision.
The Vinaya ensures that the decisions carried out by the Sangha are done in consensus, with each voice in the monastery an equal one, and with no special power invested in anyone, no matter how senior or respected. That system has been ignored in the construction of the modern monasteries, and the voices of those who speak about what the Vinaya actually requires are silenced.
Instead of monasteries run by the Sangha, they are run by a tiny elite of senior monks. Most of the junior members of the community are happy to sign away their power, awed by the prestige and charisma of the system. We are complicit, because we really don’t want to bother. This is one of the keys, and something I want everyone reading this to carefully reflect on.
Wouldn’t we really just rather this had not happened? Wouldn’t we prefer to just go and meditate and listen to some nice Dhamma, and that’s it? Wouldn’t we prefer to just imagine that all is well in the monastery, and hand over our trust to those who we believe to deserve it?
And, sad to say, isn’t that exactly the same line that was followed by the Catholics, which allowed the pedophilia scandal to fester for generations? Didn’t they, too, want to just go to their Church and have a nice service? Didn’t they want to believe that the House of God was one place where worldly politics could not interfere? Didn’t they trust that their priests, with their cloth and their sacraments, could never do any wrong?
This is the power of religious authority. It is, in my opinion, the single most dangerous thing that faces religions today. Forget the threats of modernity, or post-modernity, the supposed and much-feared secularization of society. The real threat lies within.
Religious authority is a slippery thing. It does not have to come in the form of Infallible Dogmas. It is operating, very subtly, in all our relations with the Divine; or in our case, the Dhamma. It is there when we read a Sutta; it is there when we discuss meditation with a friend; it is there when we hear a talk from a monk, with his robe, sitting in a high seat next to the Buddha; it is there when we comment on a blog post. Most subtly of all, it is there when we sit in meditation, shaping and forming our expectations, moulding our experience along certain lines, developing some, neglecting others.
In its crude form, hewn from the fundament, as it were, it is present in the website of those who would anathemize Ajahn Brahm, dhammalight.org. Under its disingenuous title it presents a sheer blank wall of authority. Its only mode of discourse is to state authority. The only relationship it can imagine with authority is submission.
I have spoken before of the peculiar nonspeak of the Western monastic culture. Every word of difference just gets swallowed up, unacknowledged. Dhammalight embodies this approach: it is blank, personless, impossible. There’s no acknowledgement, no diversity, no humanity.
The authors of the site prefer namelessness, which may be convenient for them, but is inconvenient for us, so let me invent a name. Something suitably anonymous, meaningless, void of implications: how about the ‘Walters’? The Walters I deem them, the authors of dhammalight.org and their ilk.
The Walters make up just a tiny proportion of the Western Sangha, but it is they who are driving the anti-bhikkhuni agenda. I’ve been watching the steady drift to the far right in the leadership of the Western Sangha over the past decade. The Walters certainly don’t represent the majority, but they have key positions of power, and speak louder than anyone else.
If you disagree with me, leave me a comment. I’ll read it and, if need be, respond. If you disagree with the Walters, well, I wish you better luck than I’ve had.
But what will happen? Who can predict the future? Let me have a go – let me know what you think, and we can see how accurate our predictions turn out.
Option 1. The Western Sangha, including the Walters, has a change of heart. They declare that the Sangha has been sexist, that is wrong, it must change, and it is up to us to lead that change. We must do so relying on the authentic Buddhist heritage, which means bhikkhuni ordination. The women who care about this are invited and encouraged to speak up, and their voice is treated as the key agent of change.
Why? The Walters will stand firm like a pillar.
Option 2. Same as option 1, except the Western Sangha does it against the will of the Walters.
Why? The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Option 3. Things muddle along. Nothing much changes. The remaining Western branch monasteries of WPP slowly become more closed and reactionary, losing touch with the main flow of international Buddhism. Meanwhile, the more progressive and liberal monastics grow away from WPP, whether in sudden jerks like this bhikkhuni fuss, or simply because the WPP ideology loses its relevance.
Why? Buddhism is terminally disorganized. For all the claims that WPP is an ‘intimate’ group of monasteries working together, the reality is that the individual monasteries do their own thing in many respects, and involvement with the center is often tenuous.
Option 4. The Western Sangha is forced into equality against its will. This could happen in one of two ways. The less likely possibility is that the lay community withdraws its support. This is unlikely, as the main support for most of the monasteries concerned comes from ‘traditional’ Buddhists. While they will have a variety of views around bhikkhunis, it is very unlikely that they would boycott the monks for this reason. (Western Buddhists take note: If you want to have a truly ‘Western Sangha’, you have to be prepared to pay for it!) The more practical option would be to launch a legal case against the monasteries for violation of human rights. Given what little I know of the human rights scene in England, I think it it is fairly likely that such an approach would succeed on a legal level. What the implications would be for the monasteries would be hard to predict, but it would not be pretty. Still, the law is there for a reason, and we should not be afraid to use it if we need its protection.
Why? Buddhists don’t like to argue, especially in court.
Option 5: Ajahn Brahm recants, and the rest of us renegades, too.
Probability: Are you kidding?
Why? If you’d ever met Ajahn Brahm, you wouldn’t be asking that question. No, seriously, there’s a real, important reason. Psychological research (Kohlberg, Gilligan, Walker, etc.) supports the idea that there is an arrow to our moral development, a direction which is rarely if ever reversed. Having expanded our moral compass, we simply cannot contract it. I know what it is like to be a monk in a male-only environment, where women and their needs are simply irrelevant, a minor distraction to what I perceived as the holiest and best of lives. And I know what it has been like to gradually question that, to listen to the voices, to recognize the genuine aspirations. I can’t undo that. I can’t pretend that the last 15 years haven’t happened.
So there’s my predictions. Does it sound unduly pessimistic? Call me experienced.
None of these need to happen, of course. We each choose our reality in each moment. There is nothing that forces this to be a problem, except that we choose it to be so. If we were to make different choices, right now, it would all be over.