We’ve been told by so many people that the Sangha needs to go ahead by consensus, that we need to wait for agreement before we can do bhikkhuni ordination. What this means is by no means clear – exactly whose agreement is required? Wat Pa Pong? Thai Buddhism? International Theravada? Bhikkhu Bodhi has even said that:

Although there might not be any such thing as a unified international Theravada Sangha, it seems to me that each monk has an obligation to act in conscience as if there were such an entity; his decisions and deeds should be guided by the ideal of promoting the well-being and unity of an integral Sangha even if this Sangha is merely posited in thought.

But how does this entirely theoretical ‘Sangha’ play out in the real world? How does change actually come about? I’d like to share just a few examples of major changes that have helped to form modern Buddhism as we know it.

The Dhammayuttika

One of the most decisive changes in modern Thai Buddhism was the formation of the Dhammayuttika order. This came about gradually as the result of a number of reforms and innovations introduced to a tiny circle of monks led by a Prince of Thailand, Mongkut, during his time in robes. His own account of events is very interesting. He emphasizes that it was a gradual process, not a specific decision at a point in time to create a new order. His main motivation was that he believed the contemporary Thai Sangha was degenerate, and had become merely a vehicle for passing down rituals and poorly-understood customs. He wanted to revitalize the Sangha based on fresh modern ideas, which were informed by his frequent discussions with Western thinkers.

One foundation of his reform was to emphasize the authority of the Pali canon over that of contemporary teachers. Rather than simply accepting whatever was taught to him by his teachers, he studied the scriptures for himself and developed his own, often new and critical, perspectives. The innovations he introduced have become a part of the fabric of modern Thai Buddhism, their influence reaching much further than just the small circle of Dhammayuttika monks.

In emphasizing the Pali texts over tradition, Prince Mongkut was following a strong strand of thought within Buddhism itself. The early scriptures face this problem directly, and unambiguously state that one should follow the teachings of the Buddha rather than that of the teachers. This was one of the major issues at the Second Council, around 100 years after the Buddha. A group of monks proposed that following customary precedent (āciṇṇakappa) of the teachers was allowable. The finding of the Sangha was that this was sometimes allowable (if the teachers were in accord with Dhamma-Vinaya) and sometimes not. Prince Mongkut emphasized this principle, and claimed that the contemporary Thai Sangha were in fact following the doctrine of those who uncritically followed customary precedent (āciṇṇakappikavāda).

The rest of the Sangha in Thailand, before this time, consisted of many and diverse local traditions. As the idea of Dhammayuttika became more defined, the rest of the Sangha came to be treated under one umbrella, the Mahanikaya.

Part of his motivation, it seems, was his observation that the Vinaya practice of the majority Sangha was so lax that he began to doubt whether the ordination lineage could still be valid. He searched for what he believed was a pure, valid ordination from the Mon tradition in Burma, and re-ordained in that lineage, which forms the basis for the modern Dhammayuttika.

I said ‘it seems’ above, because even though I have heard this discussed among the monks, Mongkut’s own biography does not emphasize this. It is certain that he wanted to get a ‘purer’ ordination lineage, but it is not so clear that he believed the existing Thai ordinations were invalid. Perhaps he simply wanted to de-emphasize this controversial aspect in his published writings.

The point is still felt in modern practice. Some of the Dhammayuttika monks – though far from all – still treat Mahanikaya monks as if they are not really ordained. For example, Mahanikaya monks are not allowed to participate in the patimokkha recitation – instead, they often sit inside the sīmā but not within the Sangha, a curious practice that seems to be against the Vinaya. Other Dhammayuttika monks will not eat food that has been offered to a Mahanikaya monk – leading one senior Wat Pa Pong monk to remark, when a Dhammayuttika monk insisted on this practice, ‘We’re just novices (sāmaṇera) to him’.

There was, of course, no question of Mongkut even trying to seek consensus in his new ideas. He just went ahead and did it, trying to maintain harmony and keep the Sangha harmonious, but not letting this stop him from making the necessary changes. At this distance it is difficult to appreciate the stresses and conflicts that this entailed, but they were substantial.

Mongkut and those following him have been accused of imposing a scriptural orthodoxy on the diversity of Thai Buddhist forms. There is no doubt some truth to this. It was a form of ‘inner colonialism’, the modern, Westernized culture of Bangkok trying to establish a national identity through religious reform. While I believe his reforms were generally positive, and helped Thailand to survive in good shape through the colonial era, there is always a shadow to these things.

One area where the modernist thinking of Mongkut has been very controversial has been his belief that in our degenerate age, it is impossible to realize the paths and fruits of Buddhism. Rather than aiming for any transcendental goal, our practice of Buddhadhamma is in order to support mundane virtue and wisdom, to uphold the forms and texts of Buddhism. This belief, while almost unheard of in the West, is very common in modern Theravada. It became so mainstream that at one point any reference to Nibbana was removed from the Thai ordination ceremony.

The Forest Tradition

One monk who questioned this belief was Ajahn Mun. He determined to test for himself whether the truths of Buddhism could be attained in this very life. Rejecting the text-based approach of the Dhammayuttika in his day, he set out to prove through resolute striving and practice that the Dhamma could be attained in this very life. While we can imagine no response to this than admiration and a sense of awe at his accomplishments, the contemporary Thai Sangha saw things very differently.

If Ajahn Mun and other forest monks could claim to have realized the Dhamma, then immediately they put to shame the city monks, for whom such a goal was entirely irrelevant. They could, and did, question the authority of the scriptures and the received opinions of the Dhamma, based on no more than their own meditative experience.

The forest monks were rebels, living outside the system of settled, bureaucratic monks that was so essential for the State. In many places they met with fierce opposition from the local monks, not least because their dedicated, austere approach contrasted so baldly with the laxity of the city monks. A brief history of this is available from Ajahn Thanissaro, called The Customs of the Noble Ones.

It is difficult at this distance to appreciate the intensity of opposition the forest monks faced in many places. In Ubon Rajathani, the home of Ajahn Chah and the site of his monastery of Wat Pa Pong, the chief monk of the district couldn’t stand Ajahn Chah and the forest monks. When the western monks moved to start Wat Nanachat, they met with ferocious resistance from the local monks, who accused them of all sorts of things, especially with trying to destroy Thai Buddhism. By the time I arrived there, that dispute belonged in the distant past, but there was still a remnant of the conflict: a sign hung outside one of the local temples simply said, ‘We love Thai customs.’

The Vipassana School

Similar conflicts played out somewhat differently in neighbouring Burma. Like Thailand, Burma has inherited a complex mixture of localized Buddhist forms and practices. Nominally Theravadin, it is crucial to understand that in these countries before the modern era, communications and education were poor, there was little central control, and Buddhism had evolved a myriad of localized practices. Many of these have little or nothing to do with the Dhamma. Superstition, black magic, animist worship, and mystical rituals were the order of the day. These things constituted the main activities of the Buddhist monks. Even after the many reforms that have tried to overcome these things, they still remain to this day, underneath the rational text-based reforms of the Dhammayuttika, beside the contemplative approach of the meditation monks, and outside the approval of official State Buddhism.

Mainstream Burmese Buddhism emphasizes correct doctrinal understanding based on the Abhidhamma – an approach quite different to Thailand. Faced with a similar colonialist threat, and wanting to modernize Buddhism but revitalizing the most ‘rational’ aspects of the teachings, the Burmese responded by developing an Abhidhamma-based system of meditation, which they called Vipassana.

Like the radical Ajahn Mun, the Burmese developers of the Vipassana school, whose most famous exponent was Mahasi Sayadaw, rejected the then-prevalent view that Nibbana was unattainable in our degenerate age. But they differed from the Thai forest tradition in that, while the Thais emphasized that deep insight went hand in hand with deep concentration, or jhana, the Burmese Vipassana school claimed that jhana was unnecessary to realization of the Dhamma.

This controversy has continued unabated through Theravada Buddhism until the present day. During the 60s, a series of articles was published, with the Burmese and Sri Lankan Elders rebutting each others views in the strongest terms. The conflict raises a variety of central issues: the relation of text to experience, the authority of the Suttas versus the Abhidhamma, the way modern meditation schools evolve in response to specific cultural and historical developments.

In questioning the necessity for jhana, the Burmese elders were not merely positing a different approach to meditation, but were challenging one of the very factors of the eightfold path itself, Right Samadhi. The Buddha declared that disputes about Vinaya were trivial, but disputes about the path were very harmful.

Despite the radical nature of the Vipassana School, it gained widespread adherence through the Buddhist world, largely due to the energetic efforts of the Burmese teachers, especially in teaching overseas. Many of you, like myself, will have had your first serious meditation experience at a Vipassana retreat, whether Goenka or Mahasi style. With no historical context, it is difficult to appreciate what a radical break this approach was from traditional meditative practices.

The very idea of an intensive meditation retreat, which contrasts with the gradual approach emphasized in the Suttas, is a radical modern innovation. It was originally fueled by the belief that through such an intensive process it was possible for a significant percentage of meditators to realize stream-entry, the first stage of Awakening. Many monks outside the Vipassana movement reject these claims, and do not accept the authenticity of these reported Awakenings.

Pa Auk

In the last decade or so, a strong challenge to the Vipassana orthodoxy has arisen in the form of Pa Auk Sayadaw and his very successful monastery and meditation method. Pa Auk Sayadaw rejects the central tenets of the Vipassana schools, and bases his approach on a systematic development of jhana as exponded in the Visuddhimagga.

His teachings, while emphatically in the Theravadin Abhidhamma tradition, have been controversial, and in the past, so I’ve heard, his books have been banned by the State-sponsored Sangha Council. One controversy lies in the claim that a meditator should be able to actually see the details of the ‘series of thought moments’ (cittavithī). This is an Abhidhamma construct which, according to orthodox Burmese Buddhism, can be directly seen by Buddhas and chief disciples only.

Once again, while Pa Auk’s approach can be seen as deeply conservative on the one hand, he poses a radical challenge to the spiritual authority of the Vipassana schools. If jhana really is necessary, then he implictly claims to have a deeper level of realization than Mahasi and his followers. The major international success of Pa Auk can only have deepened this challenge.

Texts: translation and composition

These reforms are, in many cases, so prevalent in international Buddhism, that they are seen as normal, and their radical nature is obscured. Another area where this is the case is in the translation of texts.

These days we have excellent English translations of many Buddhist scriptures. We might be surprised to learn that translation of scriptures into local languages is largely a modern development in Theravada. Of course, the Tibetans and Chinese translated all their scriptures long ago, but in Theravada the texts have been primarily passed down in Pali, which would be mainly learnt by the monks, and they would interpret the texts through the oral traditions. Translated texts were sporadic and partial.

The first effort to make a complete modern translation of the texts, astonishingly enough, was in England, under the guidance of T. W. Rhys Davids. Official translations into Sri Lankan and Thai have appeared (I’m not sure about Burmese). They are rarely read, and native speakers complain that the language is so rarefied that it is scarcely easier than the Pali.

So the modern practice of reading directly from the scriptures in one’s own language is a modern development. In recent years this has been greatly supported by the work of Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ajahn Thanissaro. Both of these monks have made large scale translations that are widely read in the English-speaking Dhamma world.

Not only is the very act of reading a Sutta itself an innovation, it is also important to bear in mind that both of these monks have their own personal interpretations of the Dhamma. In the past, translation and text-transmission was made by centrally organized bodies. Now, individuals can translate and analyze texts, bringing their own personal and idiosyncratic ideas to bear.

Both of these monks have what i would call a ‘critical conservatism’ with relation to the tradition: while content to pass down the traditional reading in many cases, they are not afraid to criticize or change the traditional interpretation, each in their own way.

The evolution of this can be traced in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s own works. In his translation of the Majjhima Nikaya he almost always restricted the footnotes to giving a summary of the traditional commentary, and rarely ventured to differ. His subsequent translation of the Samyutta Nikaya is far more daring and critical in his relation with the commentary. In addition, he has started to introduce the notion of comparative studies, viewing the Pali texts in the light of other early Buddhist texts, primarily in the Chinese canon. This is, so far as i am aware, without precedent in orthodox Theravada, which always views its own texts as final, original, and complete.

This emergence of individual, personal perspectives on the Dhamma is not limited to translations. In past decades we have witnessed an explosion of writings on Dhamma, which again has no precedent in the Theravadin tradition. For millenia, Theravada contended itself with composing commentaries on texts, grammars, Vinaya commentaries, Abhidhamma works, cosmologies, and the like. Nowhere do we find personal, experiential literature. Theravadins of the past, as exemplified by the great commentator Buddhaghosa, saw their task as the accurate transmission of the Dhamma, and regarded their own personal experiences as the least authority of all. The emphasis on personal experiential witness to the Dhamma is a product of Theravada’s encounter with the individualistic values of modernity.

How does reform actually happen?

These are just a few examples, chosen because of their importance for modern international Buddhism. Most students of Buddhism in the West will be unaware that these things have ever been controversial, and will be surprised to find that the form of Buddhism which has been presented to them has very recent roots.

Casting our eye back over these reforms, ask the question: Did any of these happen through consensus of the entire Sangha? Or even of one part of it? Did any of the monks (and later, laypeople) who brought these changes about do so only after having convinced everyone of their ideas? We only need to ask the question to realize how ridiculous this would be.

Not to speak of these reforms, which have created the modern Buddhism we all know, what about other reforms? When the Thai authorities decided to impose a State-based Buddhism on the regions, did they get consensus first? Assuredly not – there was great opposition, especially in the North, and especially to the idea that the State should appoint preceptors.

When the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka decided to ordain only men of the Govigama caste, did they do so with an understanding of how this would add to the greater integrity of international Theravada? Especially, did they do this in gratitude for the Thai monks who gave them the ordination lineage, knowing that caste-based ordination is entirely alien to Thailand?

This question is especially pertinent in the context of bhikkhuni ordination. Inamaluve Sumangala Nayaka Thera, the prelate of an important branch of the Asgiriya chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, took a radical step, breaking from long-standing tradition and threatening Sangha harmony by ordaining young men without regard for caste distinction. He even went so far as to ordain Tamils, breaking another long Siyam Nikaya tradition. If this was not enough, he then was instrumental in ordaining bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka. In none of these cases did he have the widespread support, let alone consensus, of the Sangha as a whole, or even his own Nikaya. In each case his moves were the opportunity for criticism and disharmony.

What about Wat Pa Pong itself? When this was established as a separate entity within the larger Mahanikaya, did Ajahn Chah and his monks have the support of the whole Mahanikaya? In deciding to treat visiting monks as if they were not regular bhikkhus – making them sit at the end of the line of bhikkhus and excluding them from the patimokkha recitation – did they act with the consensus of the bhikkhus who they were treating in this way?

Finally, what about the 1928 ban on bhikkhunis? Was this reached by a consensus approach, consulting and researching the opinions of Theravadin bhikkhus in Thailand and overseas? Certainly not: it was a ruling imposed by a centralized authority. There was then, as there has always been, a diversity of views and perspectives on female ordination in Theravada.

I am trying to think of an example of reform in modern Buddhism that meets this requirement, and I cannot think of any. If you can, please let me know. As far as my limited knowledge of the subject goes, in every case reform and adaptation of Buddhism – whether positive or negative – happens because of the acts of one person or group. They are convinced that theirs is the right way to do things, and stick by that even in the face of opposition and conflict. As the Buddha advised in the case of Sangha conflict: yathā dhammo tathā tiṭṭḥāhi – you should stand by the Dhamma.

It will be objected that the examples I have given are different from the current situation. Of course, this is quite true, and in no single case that I have mentioned parallels the current situation. But then, nothing else does either. Every historical situation is different, and must be assessed on its own terms. What I am trying to show here is that any reform takes place by going against the stream. No matter how much we might like to bring all alongside by way of reasoned persuasion, this simply does not happen in the real world for any issue of substance and complexity.

I think this is a case where sheer ontology trumps ethics. We can argue all we like about what is the ‘right’ way to bring about change. But the fact of change ignores the ethics of the thing. It is a purely evolutionary matter: who survives, survives. We can never know whether another way to bring about change would have been ‘better’.

There are those who tell us that we should pursue change through the proper channels for reform. Such channels have a decided disadvantage: they don’t exist. There is, to my knowledge, not one single major reform in Buddhism in modern times that has been accomplished through the ‘proper channels’, through acting ‘as if’ the international Theravadin Sangha were a real entity. An insistence on ‘proper channels’ would lead only to stagnation, decay, fossilization.

Such forces are so strong in Theravada already that they threaten its survival. Buddhism will not be damaged or destroyed through reform. It will die crushed under the weight of its own past. Religious reform is always messy, controversial, conflictive. But without it, Buddhism cannot survive.

We went ahead with bhikkhuni ordination in the sincere belief that without a respectful role for women, the Sangha does not have a future in any non-traditional Buddhist country. Even in traditional countries, this inequality will have a greater and greater impact on the vitality of the Sangha. In this sense, our acts were genuinely holding the best interests of the international Sangha at heart.


46 thoughts on “Reform

  1. Bhante

    Thank you for the excellent summary of recent SE Asian Buddhist history

    It certainly puts the Bhikkhuni ordination into the perspective of being part of a natural and ongoing reform of Theravadin Buddhism

    With Metta

  2. Well put Bhante, Sadhu to you. If consensus means 100% agreement with no exceptions then you will never get it. Someone will always come up with a different view or interpretation. There will always be resistance to change. The psyche favours staying put in the comfort zone; change can be upsetting and uncomfortable. However, that does not mean one should do nothing. Injustices and inequalities should be corrected even if one encounters resistance and criticism especially from your peers. I salute Ajahn Brahm, you and all the Theravada bhikkhunis for your bravery and fortitude. Buddhism in the West should free itself from the cultural baggage of other countries.

  3. Dear Bhante,

    Your article on “Reformed” is timely and cut through the heart of the Kalama Sutta. The world and human civilization is evolving and changing. At given time and age, different values and perspective arise according to the circumstances of the time amd age of the society where Dharma was practised. However, the guiding principle will still be rooted in the spirit and motivation of the Buddha’s teaching and his life practices during his 45 years of missionary work.

    A recent example of reform without going through “Sangha” consensus and “proper channels” is the abolition of eight conditions [ atthagarudhamma )for the Bhikkuni Order by the more progressive groups of Mahayana Schools. This like the Theravadin Bhikkuni Ordination controversy has created some stir among the Mahayana circles but at the end of the day, it is a reform so pertinent to modern era of gender equality and undoubtedly in the spirit and the motivation of the Buddha in treating all Sentient Beings without any discrimination.

  4. Dear all Buddhists in Samsara,

    Look! If all of us just take one step back and look at the whole hot issue, we can see with more clarity that actually, both sides meant good for the sake of the Dhamma.

    Both sides are passionate about protecting the Dhamma.
    This conflict is all about because all of us LOVE THE DHAMMA.

    Now the sea should be calm again after all the high tides and each high tide will retrieve back and what we get is a calm sea again. All of us should be calm now.

    Everyone is happy now.

    AB and the Dhammasara Bikkunis had their wishes fulfilled and they are back to business (dhamma) as usual, so why are we still surfing on the rough sea? The other side of the sea is also calm, as their wishes also fulfilled as they got to protect their treasure dhamma.

    No problem now. We must be more responsible now by now making matter worse. We appeal to respectful AS to stop digging the hole deeper making it irreparable.

    Why are we making so much noise here when both the WPP/Forest Sangha & AB/Dhammasara Sangha have moved on.

    Why can’t we move on? Let’s move on and let Nature & Dhamma take its course.
    Thank you.

    (If we are responsible, silent our minds for awhile, for the sake of Dhamma, Peace & Harmony).

    Hatred is appeased by LOVE – Buddha
    He, who has pacified mental disturbances, uprooted and removed, will surely attain concentration (SAMADHI) by day or by night. (Dhp.V:250)-Buddha

    • What you’ve said reminds me of a saying from one of Ajahn Brahm’s stories ‘What’s done is finished.’ The nuns are ordained.

      Unfortunately, it appears there is still more to do for poor Ajahn Sujato. The WPP is still intransigent on the subject and their response has been inconsistent. There might need to be a truthful or correct answer before this subject can be laid to rest or at least gently put aside so everyone can continue on.

      Reminds me of the story of the (if I recall rightly) an American monk who wanted to go with his friends to Wat Pah Nanachat. Ajahn Chah wouldn’t let him go til he was honest about why he wanted to go. WPP needs to be honest with itself and its followers or at least give an answer that Ajahn Sujato can’t find any holes in!

      All the examples given in the above article were ground-breaking in their own way, if Ajahn Mun hadn’t set his own precedent we wouldn’t have the Thai Forest Lineage. I hope and believe one day the ordination of the Bhikkunis will be seen in the same light.

      This upheavel makes me think I understand the term ‘living dhamma’. Like wind disturbing a grain of sand, this will settle of its own accord.

    • “Why are we making so much noise here when both the WPP/Forest Sangha & AB/Dhammasara Sangha have moved on.

      “Why can’t we move on? Let’s move on and let Nature & Dhamma take its course.”

      I have been feeling similar to “Reality” for the past few weeks.

      But as much as I’d like for us all to move on, I also recognise that the source of the troubled waters is not the conflict between AB and WPP. The problem is an unreflective approach to the Dhamma. It is a problem that has been with us since the time of the Buddha. Indeed, from before that. It is a perennial problem.

      AB v WPP is just an instantiation, a symptom. The curing of symptoms does not address causes. The cause of unreflectiveness is the natural desire to avoid the painful agitation that reflectiveness demands.

      That is why reforms are necessary and are always happening. Because the cause of unreflectiveness is none other than greed, hatred and delusion, no reform can ever amount to a final extirpation.

      Of course, every once in a while, having to see the shortcomings of that which we sincerely care about gets just a little bit too much. That’s natural too. At these times its good to take a break. But if that break turns into sleep, then to be awakened will always feel like a rude shock.

      In the Simile of the Snake Sutta (MN 22), the Buddha teaches that Dhamma is to be learned so that a bhikkhu can gain reflective acceptance of it, not for the sake of winning debates and criticising others.

      To the extent that our style of practice emerges as a consequence of the former, this is laudable. To the extent that the latter is the motivation, we must be mindful.

      The mix of motivations will vary according to each individual, so it’s something for each individual to always bear in mind.


  5. I understand that Ajahn Passano had ordained trees, yes trees, in Thailand to protect them from loggers. I applaud this act of ecological conservation. However, I very much doubt if had the consensus of the sangha, or if it did not break any rules of the Sangha Council, or if it was in compliance with the Vinaya. In any case, does anyone else think it is strange that the ordination of trees is more acceptable than the ordination of women?

    • Hello Pilgrim,

      I don’t think it is nice & fair to criticize Ajarn Passano like that. If AB, AS & the Perth Bhikkunis could do what they wanted, so others could also do what they liked. If the Thai theravada Sangha wished to maintain their policy, it was their choice and if AB wished to ordain the Bhikkunis it was also his choice. The Thai Sangha would not interfere as long as AB operated it out of their Thai Sangha.

  6. Dear Bhante, this is firstly to convey my deep appreciation and gratitude for your helpful reflections on historical Sangha (not only in your last post), and for opening a new vista of possibilities on how to approach our spiritual practice with intelligence and responsibility: a path is something that is not simply ‘given’ or ‘handed down’, we have to find it, re-find when lost, and keep opening and shaping for ourselves and others as we trade it – in our hearts, as well as in society. This cannot be done without questioning and engaging, both intellectually and emotionally. This is unsettling, and seems to be going against the peace and harmony and reassurance that we often seek, and even demand, out of monasticism, buddhism or meditation. Learning from experience isn’t comfortable, but it is liberating, and what else could we do? Just keep a stiff upper lip in the face of the oppression and suffering that certain forms and views generate, and hope that ‘mindfulness’ or ‘pure awareness’ will do the trick for us? Shake the dust off our sandals and walk away, hoping to build a fairer and purer land somewhere else? I’m not so much concerned with buddhism being crushed to death by its weighty past (though I agree with your analysis)as with human potential for growth, aspiration, freedom and goodness being crushed by our own (individual and collective)weighty past, as we share in the somewhat treacherous field of experience with buddhist practices and institutions. Also to acknowledge openly that under the label ‘Buddhist’, different intentions may be walking different paths towards different goals at different times, largely unconsciuosly perhaps. It may be significant that prevailing takes on, say, mind, meditation, study, role of teachers in Sri Lanka and Thailand (or perhaps even Australia and UK…)go with diverging trends on key issues such as bhikkhuni ordination; social and psychological factors such as sexism and so on need not be the only focus. Rather than seeking a linear, monodimensional, cause and effect reading of issues (which limits further thinking and acting)or satisfy ourselves with pointing to the good and bad guys in buddhism (which blinds us to the truth of change, and drains our energies with praise and blame)we may bring co-dipendent arising, conditionality and not-self to bear on buddhist practice and history itself. So I welcome yours and others insights on sectarianims, schism and reform, and see the need for ongoing inquire, for all of us, not just academics, into the source of Buddha’s thought.
    I’ve been connected to Forest Sangha for about 16 years, lived in monasteries in UK and Italy, known and experienced many of the blessings, troubles and struggles people voiced on this blog, and I think one of the big problems is when groups, traditions and communities become self-preserving and self-celebrating, and turn a blind eye to the power they have to create pain or well-being, regression or mental growth, through their own collective thought and choices. I totally agree when you say ‘proper channells’ for reform are not just ‘there’: they, in fact, are being created through our intentions. To stick with group loyalty and reverence to the masters is an intention, and as such leads to results: whether good or bad for the whole community, we can evaluate for ourselves. Democracies have their own rules, forums and procedures for developing rules. The Vinaya might have been intended to provide a similar structure for the Sangha (I’m no expert, so please clarify or correct as you see fit)but a strictly legalistic approach cannot address or solve all problems. In Italy we have just seen how the whole process can be twarted when the government makes rules for its own sake and preservation, while ‘democratically’ basing its dubious authority on the majority that supported it in the first place, dismissing all opposition as ‘subversive attack’.
    Sorry this is too long. I signed the bhikkhuni petiton, and try as I can to share the insights from this discussion with people I meet for practice and study. We are somewhat ‘on the margins’ and I believe Italians are largely unaware of Sangha problems. Anyway, we are all connected, so any steps forward will be for the benefit of all. With good wishes to you and all writers, Letizia

  7. This post has all the ingredients necessary to make a scholarly work on recent reform movements in South East Asia. If the contents of the post could be expanded in the form of a book and published, the general public could benefit tremendously, in my humble opinion.

  8. Extremely helpful for putting all this into context–thank you. I forwarded a link to many concerned people, who will also appreciate it. There is a typo under the paragraph on how reform works–“every” should be “ever.”
    May you maintain courage of heart.
    Much metta,

  9. Wishing in Gladness and in Safety, May I be reborn as a Tree.
    Thank you Ajahn Sujato, for your tireless teaching. Propelling us ever forward!

    Wish I had read this in the early days of surfing between whatever retreats were available – and being perplexed by some of the differences (And so strict! “No, don’t practice vipassana! It will make you crazy! Only Jhana” and “Don’t practice Jhana! Only ‘anapanna’ and ‘vipassana!” Etc. Etc. The University of Dhamma in the West can be bewildering without the background you have provided (eventually I figured it out. But it was a confusing struggle for a time. At one point I just stopped alltogether.)

  10. Great compilation of info, Ajahn Sujato. My big appreciation!

    May I make one comment regarding the Dhammayuttika in Thailand? The establishment of a stricter sect in Thailand, though with some objection, was successful because it was a king (the most powerful person in the whole kingdom at that time) who made it happen.

    Ajahn Brahm has been under unkind attacks with no end because those opposing him have nothing to fear and in fact they appear to have ‘more power’ in their hands.

    Look at what they have recently done!

  11. I have always admired your scholarly and objective and Dhamma-Vinaya matters, Bhante and this is no different from the rest. Sadhu x 3!

  12. Law Thim Fook :
    I have always admired your scholarly and objective and Dhamma-Vinaya matters, Bhante and this is no different from the rest. Sadhu x 3!

    oops! typo-error. should read as “objectivity” i/o “objective. sorry.

  13. Buddhist Sangha is not a real entity, but the concept is worth promoting for the purpose of religion unity and harmony.
    Theravada Buddhism is in the cross road of progress, Bhikkuni ordination is a critical decision , which ensure the survival of Theravada Buddhism in non-traditional country.
    To a simple layman, Bhikkuni ordination is just a simply logic of human welfare. Where we show loving kindness equally towards all sentient being, which is the direct teaching of the Buddha from Metta Sutta.
    It is important to maintain a “clear stream ” of the true practice of the Dharma, where ” fade Dharma ” can not be prevail. Those quarters who heavily play on religious politic will face the consequences one day. The history of Theravada Buddhism in China is a good example.
    Even though Pali Canon is not the only source of direct teaching of the Buddha , but it is a very important source.
    Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Sujato represent one of the source of this ” clear stream ” of true practice of the Dharma, we shall support from all corners of the world.

    With Metta,

  14. Venerable Monk,
    If you are as accomplished as Ajahn Mun then please accept my apologies. As one who can talk at will with Lord Buddha and the devas you would indeed be qualified to make a few small and very careful changes to the Dhamma.
    Otherwise you have no right whatsoever to make any innovations or changes, and as a monk you should be profoundly ashamed of yourself even to have such notions privately, never mind to voice them in public!
    Tibet existed alongside India for countless millenia and had innumerable connections with them, and yet it took them several centuries to successfully transplant Buddhism into their land. Whereas in the arrogant West, we think we can accomplish the same in only fifty years and make whatever innovations we like in the process!!
    Likewise our medicine, invented a mere century ago; it now has the answer to everything, and all other medical traditions are just imaginary nonsense. I do not know the cause of these erroneous and completely arrogant views within our Western culture, but I do know a cure…spend some time in the ruins of one of the great Buddhist universities of India and reflect that when these Orientals were engaging in such rarefied study our own ancestors were woad-painted savages stabbing each other with spears. I find it worthwhile to remember that, notwithstanding our recent advanced skills in toolmaking, we are still Northern barbarians just beneath the surface.
    So if our Oriental teachers want to make changes in a very, very slow manner with complete consensus we should at the very least respect their greater experience. Our job is to exactly copy the Dhamma, and pray that it will survive, so that in perhaps a few centuries our spiritual descendents may be able to emulate these ancient and awesome masters of the Orient who have been kind enough to pass on such treasures to barbarians like us.
    Everyone knows that the lapsed Bhikkuni lineages are an important and pressing issue and many of us have been working slowly and quietly towards this goal for years. A goal that has now been set back considerably by the seemingly insane unilateral actions of an Australian monk. As a Western Buddhist, when I read that he believed the support of a group of Western Australian Buddhists was all the consensus he required for such a move I felt ashamed.
    Only a Buddhist council can resurrect these lapsed Bhikkuni lineages. On an auspicious day at auspicious place all the senior nuns and priestesses of East Asia would have to gather along with other female hermits and masters. In addition the senior male monastic representatives of both Mahayana and Theravada traditions would have to oversee the event and support their sisters. His Holiness the Dalai Lama haas already indicated that he would be happy to organise such a council. It has to be done right…the consensus of just two monks and a handful of grannies from Warrumbungle or wherever just doesn’t cut it.
    Yours in the Dhamma,

    P.S. ”Buddhism will not be damaged or destroyed through reform. It will die crushed under the weight of its own past. Religious reform is always messy, controversial, conflictive. But without it, Buddhism cannot survive.” You should reflect carefully on this kind of opinion brother.

    • Dear Bro John,

      Yes,Bro John, Buddhism is a gentle religion or way of life or some regard it as a spiritual science but whatever name it is coined, its core nature is GENTLENESS and HARMONY WITH NATURE, ONESELF & OTHERS.

      BUDDHA’S WISE WORDS:- “Embrace it, if it does not cause harm to oneself and
      Do not embrace it, if it causes harm to oneself and causes
      harm to others”.

      In this impatient Bikkunis conversion, it is now harming(disharmony)the Bikkunis and harming (disharmony) the other Sangha, so it is NOT BUDDHISM, IT IS EGO-ISM.

    • Dear Bro in the dhamma,

      Buddha’s core teaching is gentleness & harmony with Nature, one self and others.
      Buddha advised us “to embrace, if it does not harm oneself and do not harm others” in any situation and when confronted in any crisis or challenge.

      The Buddha’s word “Irrigators lead the water.
      Fletchers shape the shaft.
      Carpenters bend the wood.
      The wise restrain themselves”.(V: 80-Dhp)

    • Hi,
      The recent uproar in the Sangha resulted from the quickie ordination, has inevitably caused a split or animosity in the Sangha.

      The Buddha Sasana (Buddha,Dhamma & Sangha) had existed peacefully for over 2,500 years!The Sangha has been in unity since and quarrels in the Sangha esp of the same tradition on Vinaya matters were unheard of.The revival of Bikkunis in the theravada tradition is a very big issue to the theravadas which required careful study and decision, a decision to be made and agreed unanimously by the World Sangha Council for uniformity and harmony. It should not be decided or operated singularly i.e only apply to Perth. Aj B’s hasty decision was made out of impatience,frustration and arrogance.

      It is alleged that he had plans to dealienate from the Ajahn Chah tradition and operate independently with full autonomy to built his very own lineage & reputation internationally.
      The others regarded this not very polite and without gratitude. In the Sutta, Buddha said fame can cause the downfall of a monk/nun. There is a price to pay for fame.

    • Dear John,
      Here is a sutta from the Bhikkhuni-Samyutta (Samyutta Nikayas -Thanissaro)

      “””At Savatthi. Then, early in the morning, Alavika the nun put on her robes and, taking her bowl & outer robe, went into Savatthi for alms. When she had gone for alms in Savatthi and had returned from her alms round, after her meal she went to the Grove of the Blind to spend the day. Having gone deep into the Grove of the Blind, she sat down at the foot of a tree for the day’s abiding.

      Then Mara the Evil One, wanting to arouse fear, horripilation, & terror in her, wanting to make her fall away from seclusion, approached her & addressed her in verse:

      There’s no
      in the world,
      so what are you trying to do
      with solitude?
      Enjoy sensual delights.
      Don’t be someone
      who later regrets.
      Then the thought occurred to Alavika the nun: “Now who has recited this verse — a human being or a non-human one?” Then it occurred to her: “This is Mara the Evil One, who has recited this verse wanting to arouse fear, horripilation, & terror in me, wanting to make me fall away from seclusion.”

      Then, having understood that “This is Mara the Evil One,” she replied to him in verses:

      There is
      an escape in the world,
      well touched by me
      with discernment —
      something that you,
      you Evil One,
      kinsman of the heedless,
      don’t know.
      Sensual pleasures
      are like swords & spears;
      the aggregates,
      their executioner’s block.
      What you call sensual delight
      is no delight for me.
      Then Mara the Evil One — sad & dejected at realizing, “Alavika the nun knows me” — vanished right there.”””

      The above shows that the Bhikkunis have “gone forth” during Buddha’s time.
      So, have the 4 Bhikkunis ordained in Perth “gone forth”? As Bhikkunis, they are now equal to Bhikkhus in “gone forth” i.e. they too have to go alms round with their bowl and “gone forth” deep in the forest for the days abiding as in the Bhikkunis-Samyutta. If they have not “gone forth”, can they be called Bhikkhunis? If they stay comfortably in the nunnery, being fed by laypeople with comfortable dwelling and just sprinkle some chanted water and tie talisman on laypeople, are they not just nuns(siladaras) in the nunnery?

      Are the 4 Bhikkhunis able to “gone forth” due to 2 of them are already in their granny’s age (too old to stay in the forest alone and go alms round) and the other two are in their blooming age (too dangerous to stay in the forest alone and go alms round).

      The argument is have they “gone forth” and if not, are they valid Bhikkunis? Or just siladaras in Bhikkunis’ robes.

      Seek forgiveness for any mistakes and ignorance in the Dhamma. Sokhihotu.

    • Seeking forgiveness and humbly offering our forgiveness for any wrong thots, speech or actions.

      The 4 Elder Bhikkhunis had been practising for many, many years.

      The decision to formalise the physical representation of their practise and for the benefits of ‘flesh eyes’, i ‘think’ wouldn’t have come easy for them.

      Whether they have to do what needs to be done or whether they are yet to do what needs to be done. They themselves would know.

      For my part, i will rejoice and give my Anjali to the Elder Sisters and would offer my humble gratitude and whatever support that is within my own capacity.

      Dhammapada-A Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff).

      Hard is the life gone forth,
      hard to delight in.
      Hard is the miserable
      householder’s life.
      It’s painful to stay with dissonant people,
      painful to travel the road.
      So be neither traveler
      nor pained.
      V302. Pg272.

      Of paths, the eightfold is best.
      Of truths, the four sayings.
      Of qualities, dispassion.
      Of two-footed beings,
      the one with the eyes
      to see.
      V273. Pg. 253

      Much metta


    The First Bhikkhuni Ordination in Australia

    “Vinaya comes as a gift of the Buddha to all who are fortunate to be born as human beings to practice. There is no separate Chinese or Tibetan vinaya tradition. To be ordained as a monk or nun has nothing to do with the lineages and sects that some have become preoccupied with. Non-compliance with the basic vinaya is more of a concern than the slight variation of interpretation about vinaya rules between traditions. In view of engendering the harmony and peace that religious tradition is expected to promote in this troubled world, it is high time that various Buddhist schools learned from each other. Tibetan Buddhism can go a long way if it has the humility to introduce the Bhikhuni ordination into their tradition with help from the Chinese or Vietnamese. After all Buddhism itself was introduced from India. The Chinese and Theravadin tradition could learn from the extensive study tradition of the great works of Indian masters preserved in the Tibetan tradition. The strictness of vinaya rules kept in the Theravadin tradition should be modelled by others, including the Tibetan tradition. The strict meditation and discipline model can be learnt from the Zen tradition. ” Lama Choedak Rinpoche

  16. Thank you, Bhante, for this essay. You have answered many questions I have developed in my past 4 years of participation in a Thai Dhammayuta community here in Louisiana. It has seemed to me to be more a Thai community center than a Buddhist institution bringing the Dhamma to this corner of the “Third Country.”

    I add my voice to the person who said (above) that your essay should be expanded to a book on the development of Theravada since the impact of Western ideas in the 19th century. I know of no such book now available, and it is needed.

  17. Dear John,

    You said: Only a Buddhist council can resurrect these lapsed Bhikkuni lineages.

    I think before the Buddha passed away, He stated that He would not appoint a successor but, rather, He bequeathed the Holy Dhamma (the Truth) as the ultimate guide for our lives.

    I don’t think those who perceive themselves as having power over others and act without wisdom and compassion are following the Buddha’s teachings.

    Someone posted on this blog Einstein’s quote:

    Science without religion is lame,
    religion without science is blind.

    Please forgive my arrogance, but I would like to remind all the monks that:

    Compassion without wisdom is lame,
    (Apparent) Wisdom without compassion is blind.

    • Dear John

      Anybody that has known Ajahn Brahm through attending one of his retreats and actually following his advice for themselves, would never speak disparagingly about him. I’ve learned (and ‘am learning) to open my heart, still my mind, forgive myself and others and cultivate gentleness instead of guilt from this amazing Australian monk.

      Thank my good kamma I found a teacher able to teach the ‘mýstical’ aspects of Buddhism in an incredibly practical, rational manner. The sort of Buddha-Dhamma-magic he teaches does not wait for auspicious moments; rather it creates auspicious moments through the kammic power of the 8 fold path that is constantly encouraged and role-modelled.

      Is there anywhere in the Pali Canon where it says that we are NOT to investigate for ourselves? And thus act for ourselves? I believe this is exactly what this amazing (certainly not ‘lone’) Australian monk has done; that is he has investigated the circumstances and decided to act courageously.

      Thank goodness some monks understand that they cannot behave as if they own their monasteríes or their supporters. Instead some monks tirelessly work hard for the benefit of all beings, for the benefit of those in their home monasteries, for the benefit of the wider community that they live in.

      This not so ‘lone’ Aussie monk has worked and is working harder than most people can imagine. Despite his busy life, he still practises what he preaches and people who are his students continue to grow in both independence and happiness.

  18. Dear Ajahn Sujato,

    Thank you for your excellent piece on reform in Buddhism in South-East Asia. Essentially what you seem to be saying is that nothing ever changes unless someone dares go against the prevailing institutional attitudes (of course, this is not limited to South-East Asia). Most firmly established institutions will tend to be conservative: anyone who is part of the establishment, with the privileges that that entails, will have a vested interest in preserving things as they are. But without change the institutions eventually become so out of tune with society around them that they end up being irrelevant. It would seem that when the gap between institutional norms and social expectations reaches a certain threshold and the consequent push for reform attains a certain momentum, then change happens regardless of the personalities involved. The occasional upheaval is probably both unavoidable and a good thing.

    It is interesting to see how these issues are reflected on the dhammalight website. In their own words they are attempting “to provide a complete picture of this situation”, but even a cursory look at their website makes it clear how one-sided it is. There are exactly two articles on the website that show the argument from the side of those who support the Perth bhikkhuni ordination. I have personally sent them a letter (twice), as has Ajahn Brahm, to no effect. Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s response to Ajahn Thanissaro has been sent to dhammalight (after they themselves expressed an interest), but even that letter – by a highly respected scholar and translator, who is neutral in the conflict between Wat Pah Pong (WPP) and Ajahn Brahm – has not been posted.

    No names are given as to who is behind dhammalight. Many of the letters by the WPP group of monks are not signed. If you wish to send them an article or comment, you send it to the impersonal, and if you ever get a response (which I didn’t) it is signed ‘dhammalight’. Even if they are doing things by committee, it would surely have been reasonable to have a front person, someone you can communicate with. They seem to delete their names from received correspondence; see for example the letter from Ajahn Thanissaro. Finally, they do not allow anyone to post comments directly on their site, thereby tightly controlling the information available to the public.

    Why are they going to such lengths to remain anonymous? The answer is implied by Ajahn Sujato in his Reform article. They must realise that they are on the wrong side of the argument. Society – certainly in the West – has moved beyond the sort of gender discrimination that is still found in some Buddhist institutions. Reform is necessary, and increasingly it is expected. These monks realise, consciously or not, that to reveal their names is to expose themselves to becoming highly unpopular among a large segment of the worldwide Buddhist population.

    So, those of us who support bhikkhuni ordination in general and the ordination in Perth in particular, perhaps we should simply see the secrecy at dhammalight as yet another sign that we are ‘on the right side of history’.

    Ajahn Brahmali

  19. Well, the internet is a double-edged blade: While it makes centralized propaganda more difficult by opening different venues of commnication, it also enhances the risk of spreading mis-communication unfiltered.

    this will be an interesting case study on which “forces” will gain “air control” in their publications on the net.

  20. There are two interesting articles on the Buddhist Channel website:,8676,0,0,1,0 – which says that Ajahn Brahm and the monks of Bodhinyana and Santi Forest Monastery will seriously consider…not compromising the foundations of their true harmony based on Dhamma and Vinaya, for the sake of superficial keeping up appearances of practically vacuous and legally invalid ‘harmony’ with the Thai traditionalist faction, who have now explicitly declared that they take other Teacher(s)/ other religious authorities, and are not committed to Refuge in Dhamma only and not a person, not tradition, and not secular Thai State law.

    The time has come to let go of our Thai heritage. There may be a few ariyans left among it, but they are not practically in control of the institution anymore, and as ariyans are still capable of being misinformed and sincerely mistaken so we do not need to necessarily renounce our faith in our teachers who remain on the Thai side. But the institution has become definitively non-Buddhist and hostile to genuine uncompromising commitment to authentic Buddhism, therefore let it go.,8687,0,0,1,0 – which says that the expulsion and the corresponding uproar could just be the catalyst to push the Thai Sangha to re-evaluate their stance on Bhikkuni ordination.

  21. Dhammapada: Verse 9

    “He who wears the yellow robe,
    without being freed from impurity,
    who is devoid of self-control and
    truth, is not worthy of it.”- Buddha

  22. I’ve found this article on a Thai web board:

    Ordination facilitates enlightenment
    (Mathichon newspaper. May 14, 2001)

    Phra Sri Pariyatimoli, deputy rector for foreign affairs at Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya, said that Buddhism promotes ordination and that ordination is deemed an easy method to attain enlightenment and purify our defilements. Buddhism encourages both men and women to ordain.

    On how women can be ordained in the Theravada sect, Phra Sri Pariyatimoli said that there are two issues. The Mahathera Samakom must hold a seminar among scholars and experts on the Bhikkhuni order. They have to study on how the Thai Sangha could deal with the rule forbidding women ordination; the Thai Sangha have to choose between the vinaya and the benefits that would result from bhikkhuni ordination. We may have to choose the ‘win some, lose some’ outcome. The Sangha have to be confident and make a decision. The Buddha vajana has already granted some flexibility that if the Sangha wanted to change a disciplinary rule, it can be done. In those days, they decided not too. Now, the world has changed, so the Sangha have to be brave to make a decision. If bhikkhuni ordination cannot be revived, the Sangha have to find a way out for women and should not let women struggle to work it out on their own. If more women want to ordain, if (the wish) becomes a larger scale, it could become an unending issue; and women may then have some prejudices against male monks.

  23. Anonymous :
    Seeking forgiveness and humbly offering our forgiveness for any wrong thots, speech or actions.
    The 4 Elder Bhikkhunis had been practising for many, many years.
    The decision to formalise the physical representation of their practise and for the benefits of ‘flesh eyes’, i ‘think’ wouldn’t have come easy for them.
    Whether they have done what needs to be done or whether they are yet to do what needs to be done. They themselves would know.
    Oops typo error… i meant to say, “Whether they have done what needs to be done ….” sori:-P

    • Hi Alex,

      That would be a good question for Discourse! Anyway, it’s MN104.

      Appamattako so, ānanda, vivādo yadidaṃ—ajjhājīve vā adhipātimokkhe vā. Magge vā hi, ānanda, paṭipadāya vā saṅghe vivādo uppajjamāno uppajjeyya; svāssa vivādo bahujanāhitāya bahu­janā­su­khāya bahuno janassa anatthāya ahitāya dukkhāya devamanussānaṃ.

      Ananda, disputes about livelihood or the patimokkha are trivial. But if a dispute about the path or the practice should arise in the Sangha, that would be for the harm and unhappiness and loss and suffering of many people among gods and men.

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