In all the fuss about the bhikkhuni ordination in perth, we are in danger of forgetting that this is just one little ordination in just one little monastery. Bhikkhunis exist in their thousands all over the world, and are working every day to spread the true light of Dhamma into the hearts of good people everywhere. Bhikkhunis and other wonderful Buddhist women celebrate and dialogue each year at the Sakyadhita conference. This year it is held in Vietnam. We’re proud that several of the Santi nuns are participating this year: Ayya Vayu, Ayya Dhammananda, and Ayya Adhimutta.


“Sooner or later, we’ll see female monks everywhere.”

On Dec 28, 2009, a press conference was held by a committee of senior Ajahns from Wat Pa Pong, calling for Thai State control over monasteries overseas.

The monks who are quoted in the reports are Ajahn Opas (Phra Kru Opaswuthikorn; more normally known as Luang Po Sophorn) and Ajahn Khampong (Phra Kru Sudhamprachote), both senior abbots in the WPP tradition; also Ajahn Kevali, the recently installed German aboot of Wat Nanachat, is mentioned. It is highly unlikely that the Western Ajahns were consulted, certainly not all of them or in detail. The conference represents the views of a council of 12 senior monks at WPP, which I believe is an ad hoc committee set up in the wake of the bhikkhuni ordination. They claim to represent WPP as a whole.

The press conference makes two things clear.

1. That WPP formally and seriously wishes to wrest control of Bodhinyana Monastery from Ajahn Brahm, using the legal apparatus of the Thai nation.
2. That women’s ordination in any form is fundamentally unacceptable.

An account of the press conference by Sanitsuda Ekachai is on the Buddhist Channel, which includes this summary of the issues:

If action is not taken, the council fears that more women could be ordained in the West.

“Sooner or later, we’ll see female monks everywhere,” said Phra Kru Opaswuthikorn.

Rarely do we see the real issue expressed with such forthright clarity. Phra Opas has, mercifully, not studied in the school of monastic nonspeak. He knows what he believes, and says it. We have to stop the nuns, damn them up before they become a flood that overwhelms Buddhism. (As an aside, he reminds me of our very own Cardinal Pell, another unreconstructed patriarch who just sails on, oblivious to the changing currents around him.)

This is a powerful patriarch speaking, with his own monastery, his State-appointed title, entrusted by WPP with shaping the future of the Western WPP Sangha. I believe that those in such a position of spiritual leadership have a moral imperative to inform themselves and respond positively to the genuine spiritual needs and aspirations of their time. But here Phra Opas, and the WPP council he represents, is making a power play based on a sexist ideology. When those with much power try to strip away even the little power that others have, it is our ethical duty to stand up for the wronged and the deprived. There is no sign here of any wisdom that might help us understand how we as human beings must share this beautiful, fragile planet together.

Phra Opas forms his argument based on the supposed problems of the Thai people. I urge Thai people everywhere to let the rest of the world know what they really think. Lest it be forgotten, the Thai Senate subcommittee of 2003 declared that the 1928 ruling against female ordination was against the Thai constitution, specifically the clauses guaranteeing freedom of religion and gender equality. Please, my Thai friends, do not let Thai Buddhism be remembered for greed and narrow-mindedness. There is so much that Thai Buddhism has offered the world, and so much it has yet to offer.

The following is a first-hand report of the press conference by the Bangkok Post writer Sanitsuda Ekachai, copied here from Facebook.

Phra Kru Opaswuthikorn presided at the press conference today to urge the Office of National Buddhism and the Council of Elders to issue rules and regulations to empower the Thai Sangha to punish monks overseas who violate the Sangha’s mandates.

Phra Kru Opas spoke on behalf of the Wat Pah Pong executive board which made this decision last week.

Rough summary of press releases:

The Perth ordination is against the Vinaya-Dharma of Thai Theravada Buddhism as well as violating the Wat Pah Pong’s prohibition against female ordination. Aj Brahm was summoned to admit his mistake which refused to do, resulting in the excommunication. This decision was later approved by Somdet Phra Puttajarn who said Aj Brahm’s preceptorship was therefore automatically revoked.

Apart from ordaining women, Aj Brahm was also accused of temple mismanagement. The Bodhinyana Temple came into being through the faith and donations of Thai Buddhists in Perth. After the first abbot left monkhood, Aj Brahm was appointed as abbot and he later changed the temple bylaws and change the temple committee members for “his own interest” despite disagreement from the Bodhinyana Sangha.

Given that the Bhikkhuni ordination and temple ownership problems have greatly troubled the Thai Buddhists in Australia, a committee should be set up to investigate land ownership and temple mismanagement at Bodhinyana in order to return the land and temple to the Thai Buddhists and to ensure that the temple management is in line with Dhamma Vinaya.

To prevent future problems, rules and regulations should be issued so the Thai Sangha can punish the monks overseas who violate th laws and the clergy’s mandates.

On temple ownership overseas, this poses a problem of control because temples are owned by associations not the Thai Sangha like temples in Thailand. Should the abbots err, they still can stay if the temple committee support them. Or, when the abbots are in the right, they cannot stay if they don’t have support of the committee. The management of temples in Thailand, however, is under Thai Sangha’s administrative structure. When problems occur like in the case of Bodhinyana, it is then difficult to move due to lack of uniform rules which effectively govern temples in Thailand. To prevent similar problems, there should be a state agency to enforce the Thai Sangha law and to cover temples overseas.

I asked whether WPP sent emails to the Thai embasy and Sinporean organisers of Aj Brahm’s talks, the answer is no, WPP did not do that.

Asked if this control effort have been approved by the Western clergy since it would affect the Western monks’ relative autonomy which is useful to their dharma work, the answer that it is the decision of the WPP board consisting of 12 senior monks. That it was approved by LP Liam. But the answer was not clear if the Western Sangha was fully consulted or not.

Phra Kru Sudhamprachote said many Thai Buddhists in Perth are unhappy with Aj Brahm and are trying to find way to get him out the temple. But this is up to the people, WPP cannot do anything to support this action.

I asked if WPP has an alternative to Bhikkhuni. Aj Kevali is in favour of the Siladhara order. But Phra Kru Opas outrightly dismissed it, saying it it would be difficult for the order to be accepted in Thailand. He described Bhikkhuni ordination as against the Dhamma Vinaya. That the Buddha advised monks to stay away from women, because women and monks are like fire and fuel.

I asked what is the real issue concerning Aj Brahm, Bhikkhuni ordination or Aj Brahm’s secrecy and failure to consult the WPP clergy. Phra Kru Opas said the main issue is Bhikkhuni ordination. That there is no way that Thai Theravada Buddhism to have Bhikkhuni. And as far WPP concerns, Aj Brahm is no longer a Thai Theravada monk, but a Mahayana monk.

My hunch : This might be part of the existing problems of internal politics between Thai and Western monks in the WPP order. Luang Por Chah wanted the Western clergy to oversee the Western monks. Consequently, Thai monks have no say on temples overseas. But the Perth ordination shows Aj Sumedho’s failure to keep the monks under his supervision in line so the Thai monks have the reason to step in to control the Western monks and the temple properties abroad.

There are a number of critical points here.

Phra Kru Opas clearly states that the real issue is bhikkhuni ordination, which he says can never be accepted in Thai Buddhism. One the other hand, we have been told again and again by Western Ajahns that the real issue is not bhikkhuni ordination, but the ‘way it was done’. I give the Western Ajahns the benefit of the doubt here: I don’t think they are lying, I think they are just naive. They need to actively develop a culture of denial if they are to maintain the status quo and convince themselves that it is possible to remain with integrity within the existing structures of Thai State Buddhism. As I have said all along, and as the statement here confirms, there never was any possibility of advancing bhikkhuni ordination within the existing structures.

And, as I have also stated repeatedly, siladharas are no better in the eyes of the conservative Thai Sangha. Ordaining siladharas is just as illegal in Thailand as ordaining bhikkhunis – if the 1928 ruling is still in force – and Phra Kru Opas dismisses any chance that that order might make any headway in Thailand. The only advantage of the siladhara order is that it’s easy to dismiss it and not take it seriously. The plain fact is that if these ultra-conservative monks have their way, there is no chance of any improvement in women’s lot in Thai Buddhism.

The most astonishing accusations in Phra Opas’ statement concern the alleged temple mismanagement at Bodhinyana. These claims have no factual basis whatsoever. They are sheer invention. Anyone who knows Ajahn Brahm would know that he is the most scrupulous and dedicated manager imaginable. I’ve seen him personally check every call on the phone bill, and will harass Telstra if there’s the slightest problem. In three years as the secretary at Bodhinayana, I never saw anything but the highest standards of accountability and professionalism in Ajahn Brahm’s management.

The irony is that it was, in fact, Wat Nanachat that was badly mismanaged for many years, because most of the other Ajahns, understandably enough, are not so concerned or knowledgeable about such matters. It ended up with lay committee members ripping off much of the donations. This is not a criticism of the monks involved, they were simply being trusting. The rorts were only ended by Ajahn Nyanadhammo, who set up a rigorous system of checks on finances, which he had learnt from his time at Bodhinyana with Ajahn Brahm.

The notion that there are a set of ‘uniform rules’ that ‘effectively govern’ monasteries in Thailand is nonsense. Thai Buddhism is deeply troubled and in desperate need of internal reform. The scandals reported in the media are only the tip of the iceberg. Deeper and harder to deal with than AIDS or drug addiction in the Sangha is the pervasive loss of spiritual relevance or meaningful Dhamma vocation. This cuts to the very heart of the contemporary Sangha, and is not a simple case of a few misbehaving monks.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the actions of Phra Mongkut, or Ajahn Mun, or Ajahn Chah. They all operated under the quite reasonable knowledge that mainstream Thai Buddhism was seriously corrupt, and that only by reforming or living on the margins of the system could one live with integrity. This is a staple part of the Forest Tradition, which is why the Forest Tradition monks set up such strong boundaries between themselves and other monks. Outsider monks are treated as if they are only semi-ordained, since it is assumed that if monks do not come from the forest tradition, they are probably guilty of many Vinaya offences.

A few more specifics need mention.

After the first abbot left monkhood, Aj Brahm was appointed as abbot and he later changed the temple bylaws and change the temple committee members for “his own interest” despite disagreement from the Bodhinyana Sangha.

These claims are completely false, as anyone who has stayed at Bodhinyana would know. Ajahn Brahm has always had the support of the Sangha at Bodhinyana.

To prevent future problems, rules and regulations should be issued so the Thai Sangha can punish the monks overseas who violate th laws and the clergy’s mandates.

“Rules and regulations, punishment, violations, and mandates”. This is exactly the opposite of why we became Buddhists, or were attracted to practicing Buddhism, in the first place. We are so, so far from the Dhamma of acceptance, forgiveness, and letting go.

Phra Kru Sudhamprachote said many Thai Buddhists in Perth are unhappy with Aj Brahm and are trying to find way to get him out the temple. But this is up to the people, WPP cannot do anything to support this action.

Thai people are like people anywhere – diverse and varied. WPP and the Thai Sangha officials do not have a monopoly of what Thai people want or believe. There are, quite probably, some Thais in Perth who do not like the bhikkhuni ordination. There are certainly many who are fully supportive.

But the claim that WPP can do nothing about the actions of the Thai community in Perth is untrue. In fact, a senior monk from WPP has been ringing his contacts among the Thai people in Perth to urge them to act to have Ajahn Brahm removed. There is no chance that this covert undermining of Ajahn Brahm will succeed. The Perth community is a strong and multi-cultural one.

If this movement gains any momentum, what we may see is the development of a Thai temple in Perth separate from Bodhinyana. It’ll become like every other Thai temple: a place for Thais to go, speak their language, perform their rituals, and be reminded of home. Then they’ll realize that their children are completely alien in this environment, and go to Bodhinayana asking the monks to help teach their children.

Given that the Bhikkhuni ordination and temple ownership problems have greatly troubled the Thai Buddhists in Australia, a committee should be set up to investigate land ownership and temple mismanagement at Bodhinyana in order to return the land and temple to the Thai Buddhists and to ensure that the temple management is in line with Dhamma Vinaya.

If you cast your mind back, at the meeting when Ajahn Brahm was expelled from WPP, one of the first reactions was to claim that Bodhinyana should be ‘reclaimed’ by the Thai people. This was immediately dismissed by Ajahn Nyanadhammo, who told the assembly that the monastery was owned by the BSWA and WPP had no jurisdiction over it. At the time I assumed that this claim was just a loose remark by an angry monk; but now it is endorsed by the official committee.

WPP wants to take over Bodhinyana in the name of ‘Thai Buddhism’. This is not without precedent. Daen Maha Monkhon in Kanchanaburi was developed as a stunning, successful center by a charismatic upasika; then last year some monks came and tried to claim the land and take it away from the women. In Vietnam there have similar conflicts; once the monastery is built the government takes over.

It seems to me that this is what’s happening here. The Thai monks have seen how successful and prosperous the BSWA has become. Success always breed envy. They believe that Ajahn Brahm is leading the community in the wrong direction; they want to go there, pull it back in line, and keep the women in their place – the kitchen. Then they will end up with a glistening, prestigious prize: one of the best developed Dhamma centers in the West, with plenty of land and places for Thai monks to come and stay.

Of course, this scenario is sheer fantasy. The BSWA has been such a success precisely because it has engaged with the reality of the lives and needs of people living in Perth, and has not blindly instantiated a model from overseas.

The most interesting thing for now will be to see how the other Western Ajahns react – and even more so, what about the junior monks and nuns, and those considering ordination. How do they feel entering such an environment? If these things had been happening when I was new to all this, I would have run a million miles. After a long slow drift towards conservatism, reactionary politics, and sexist institutionalization, now there’s a rapid and dramatic lurch to the extremes.

In the statement from the WAM and elsewhere, the Western Ajahns have been at pains to claim that their system is a slow and consensual one, and that deliberation and discussion must proceed any move. Clearly this is not how things are going on. They need to start acknowledging this reality. If WPP is really as consensual as they claim, then they must accept full responsibility for these attacks and views. If it is not consensual, then they need to stop hiding behind this smokescreen and admit that there simply is no way that bhikkhuni ordination could have been reasonably pursued within WPP circles.


I was a bit surprised to see that one of our commenters say he didn’t think to ask me a question directly, as he didn’t think a monk would reply. I read all the comments, and try to answer the direct questions raised in the comments, and to reply elsewhere when I have something to say. Of course i can’t reply personally to each posting, much as I would like.

But i’d like to give you a chance to ask questions or raise topics that i haven’t posted on. I’ll try to do this from time to time, and will do my best to answer any questions – although you’re all also invited to have a go! So if there’s something you’d like to raise, please do so in the comments – what is a pressing Dhamma issue for you?


Bhikkhuni ordination remains in the news, with front page articles in the leading Thai papers Thai Rath and Matichon.

A tabloid-style blog from the Wat Thai Las Vegas (!) has published a scathing condemnation of Ajahn Brahm, calling him a ‘fool’ (moghapurisa) in the headline. This website has some pretty lurid stuff; the current leading article screams: “Monk Kills Monk!”, with a big picture of a gun and bullets.

There has been some discussion about the content of these articles. I’m not sure that they add anything new, as it’s hard to say what truth has survived the tabloid treatment. But there is the impression that the Walters are continuing their efforts, and some say the Walters believe the existing expulsion is not enough and are seeking to have Ajahn Brahm emoved as abbot of Bodhinyana. Others say there has been an explicit ban on performing sanghakamma, or Thai monks visiting Bodhinyana. I’m taking all this with a grain of salt for now; I’ve heard very different things from other, more reliable, channels. The official website of the Mahatherasamakhom simply acknowledges that Bodhinyana has been expelled from Wat Pa Pong (see point 34 on this page). It does not mention Ajahn Brahm or bhikkhunis

There is a supportive opinion piece by an influential columnist in the Thai Rath.

Sanitsuda Ekachai, having stimulated a vibrant exchange with a previous article, has written another breathtakingly honest and clear-sighted article for the Bangkok Post.

Australian media is belatedly catching up, with an article in the West Australian. Notice the delightfully relevant stock photo of Bodhinyana monks with a fire truck!

Meanwhile, for more background information and reflections from a reformist monk in Thailand, see Phra Paisarn’s English articles.


I’m struck, again and again, at the vast gap that exists between how the Sangha is seen and the reality of what it is. Not just the Sangha, but Buddhism in its historical manifestations is almost completely unknown, it seems, to almost all practising Buddhists. I see this gap in the claims that Theravada is the ‘pristine original teachings’; that there is one and only one way for Sangha to live; that Buddhism has never had any conflict until the Westerners started messing things up; and so on. Or, as I’ve banged on about repeatedly, the idea that bhikkhuni ordination could ever come about through a process of discussion and consensus.

Even a couple of hours with Wikipedia would dispel most of these fantasies. Wikipedia is, of course, by no means perfect. But having spent some time working on some of the historical articles there, the inaccuracies mostly come from well-meaning Buddhists with precisely the same kind of historical and reality disconnect, who blithely delete well-prepared and referenced articles or paragraphs from good scholars, only to replace them with naïve sectarian propaganda. Nevertheless, it remains a far more accurate and balanced source than almost anything you’ll find in a traditional Theravadin education curriculum.

Education is a big challenge, one which Theravada has, so far, failed dismally. Yet it is not the heart of the matter. We have the resources, if we wish, to prepare our Sangha and laity with a genuine, effective, education. There have been great strides especially in Taiwan and Korea in recent years, and there is no reason Thailand could not do the same.

The problem lies deeper. It goes to the heart of how the Sangha is imagined, desired in Theravada. We want our monks to be ignorant, inarticulate. We want them to repeat them same bland platitudes again and again. We loathe any deviation, any innovation, that might suggest that something new might be valuable.

As a monk, I am all too aware of how I offer a field for projection. Wrapped in our ochre robes, with shaven heads, we monastics deliberately strip ourselves of personal identity, the ‘signs of the household’ (gihivyanjana). We are removed, separated, distant, surrounded by layers of formalities, rituals, and taboos. For the Buddhist lay community we are the ‘other’, forever inaccessible. The things we surround ourselves with – robes, bowl, and the rest – retain little of their original functionality, and serve primarily as symbols that associate us with the lineage of the Buddha. We don’t just offer ourselves for projection, we positively invite, almost demand it.

Little wonder, then, that realistic understanding of the Sangha is so rare among the laity. In the past this would have been different. In traditional Buddhist culture, the monastery is part of the village. There it is, just over there. We’ve been going there since we were kids; we played in the yard, and watched the new hall being built. Our uncle is one of the monks, and our best friend ordained there for a month. We’ve seen the best and the worst that the Sangha has to offer, and we understand through experience how this melds with the life of the village.

Now, for the majority of urban Buddhists, contact with the Sangha is far less organic; just occasional ceremonies or teachings. When I was in Thailand some years ago there was yet another scandal in the Sangha, and my lay friend said passionately, ‘They don’t understand; these monks are human beings’. And that’s exactly it. We’re human beings first, and our lives do not depend on satisfying the fantasies of others.

The monks, however, know this and quite consciously play the game. They’re taught to be ‘nak sadaeng’, ‘showmen’. The robe has to be just so, the bowing, the chanting, the downcast eyes; all just so.

In essence, this is all normal stuff. There’s always a distinction between the inner and the outer. There’s no particular virtue in simply allowing one’s inner states to vomit forth on others; that’s, very largely, what culture is for. If I get angry with someone, I should still speak to them politely. The Buddhist idea is that one should be aware of this, and in the awareness comes integration.

But there comes a time when ‘differentiation’ or ‘distinction’ becomes extreme; that’s when we start to speak of ‘dissociation’ or ‘disjunct’. When someone’s inner and outer lives are well integrated, we speak of ‘authenticity’; when they are dissociated, we speak of ‘hypocrisy’.

One thing I’ve noticed about Asian culture is that there’s a strong awareness of the fact of playing the game. It’s all taken very seriously – the formalities, the ritual politenesses – but there’s also a realization that it is, in fact, just a game. One bows because it is the thing to do, not because the person one is bowing to is any better than you are. Westerners, for better or worse, struggle with this, and are reluctant to bow (or whatever) unless they are convinced that the object of their veneration is really worth it. This is not just a problem from the lay end, but an even bigger problem from the monastic end. Spiritual inflation is the eternal danger threatening Western monks: we just take the forms so literally.

So: lay Buddhists project their ideals on to the Sangha. The Sangha become, not struggling human beings in a complex and demanding role, but icons of purity and spiritual perfection. The Sangha play along with this, because it increases the faith of the lay community. Faith, in this sense, is complex notion, which slides all the way from ‘they’ll give us more good stuff’ to ‘they’ll be inspired to meditate seriously’. In some cases this game is a perfectly normal social game, which embodies in ritual play the spiritual role of the ordained Sangha within the fourfold assembly. In other cases the disjunct between inner and outer becomes so great that it is sheer hypocrisy and sham.

The projection also goes the other way. The monastics are probably somewhat less extreme in their projections, a little more cynical and realistic; they’ve been there. They have an understanding of lay life from the inside; and, in case they forget, there are plenty of lay people ready to share their woes and problems with a monastic compassionate enough to lend an ear.

Nevertheless, lay life is constructed as the ‘other’ from the monastic point of view, and this always invites projection. The central fantasy is, of course, sex. The lay life is seen as a struggle to survive that is primarily centred on the sexual drive. This is a key point. The Sangha valorizes celibacy to such a degree that no matter how decadent the Sangha becomes, how little practice there is, or how little understanding of the teachings, we remain, due to this one thing, on the higher spiritual plane. This is a very crude way of putting it, and I don’t mean to suggest that good monastics actually believe this consciously, or even unconsciously. Yet there is, to my mind, no doubt that this is a powerful force in the construction of the Sangha as a ritually sacred community.

It comes out, for example, in the lurid sexual fantasies about Western culture that have found their way into our blog comments. The West (in Asian imagination) is the great secular society, and hence the great paragon of sexual license. Of course, this has nothing to do with the facts; a global survey of prostitution, for example, shows that Western Europe typically has less sex workers than the rest of the world, and Sweden has swiftly brought down the numbers of prostitutes by making the purchase of services (usually by the male client) illegal, and the selling legal. I wonder what this would accomplish in Thailand, especially given the strong correlation between prostitution and spread of AIDS.

If the Sangha is the idealized projection in lay minds, then the laity are the debauched dark fantasy of the monks. This is, of course, a caricature; I’m just phrasing it as vividly as I can.

But this is not the only axis of projection. Anytime a person or group is conceived as ‘other’, we disidentify with them, see them as less human and more a foil for our own imagination. More typically, this happens across the sexes. Men and women look at each other with eyes that always seek something that is not there. This is the basis of romantic love; and just as surely, the basis for divorce.

This projection gets even more extreme when combined with the division into lay and monastic. The monks and lay women are, as it were, at a double remove, inviting twice the projection. The monks become the ideal of the spiritual masculine – sensitive, intelligent and strong – while the husband slouches in front of the footy with a beer in hand. And the monks get so used to looking ‘down’ on women – literally, from the spiritual heights of their Dhamma seats as the women bow to them – that it simply never crosses their minds that they might also see the feminine by looking across – or even up.

It’s a big problem. It won’t be solved in a day – probably not ever. But it’s not so hard for us to do something about it. To start with, reflect! Remind yourself that the person you deal with, whether monastic or lay, is a human being first of all, and inside is pretty much like the rest of us. Beware of the tendency to imagine special powers or qualities in another. Do some study; read up about Buddhist history and get an idea of how our spiritual teachings manifest in the ‘real world’. Talk about this with others, especially with others across the divide. Chat with your monastics; use subterfuge to get them in a situation where they are not on a high seat or in their ritually-protected safety zone, but can speak as equals. It’s always the hardest when the other is not there, as in the recent WAM, where the monks, yet again, discussed the fate and future of the nuns without any nuns present. Bring the other into presence, both physically and in imagination, and appreciate the connections and similarities, as well as the differences that make it interesting. Be honest, and stay real.

Reform – a challenge

I’ve already made some remarks on the nature of reform in modern Theravada. I continue to be surprised at the unrealistic scenarios that people imagine change can come by.

History is good: it teaches about the messiness of things. Those who argue that universal consensus is necessary before making any changes are, in my opinion, arguing that change should never come. Do you think I’m wrong? Then meet my challenge. I’ve already said this in comments, now let me emphasize it again.

I’ve given several examples in recent Theravada history where reform comes because one person or a small group goes against the will of the majority, or against the tradition, and simply perseveres until their innovations becomes seen as normal.

May someone please give us an example of a major reform that was brought about through universal consensus? Anything in modern Theravada? Theravada through the ages? Other schools of Buddhism? Any major religion, anywhere, anytime? Let’s see if there are any examples, and if they are, how relevant they might be in our current situation.

Here’s two possibilities to start with.

Vatican 2. A major reform of a huge religion, that was accomplished through dialogue and discussion. After statements by previous popes that condemned modernity, now the Roman Church embraced it. new churches were built using modern, abstract art; social values of inclusivity; church services in the vernacular; and many other previously radical ideas suddenly became orthodox. Some areas were untouched, notably ordination for women. Nevertheless, it was a great accomplishment by any standards, but in an organization that has always been far more centralized and structured than Buddhism.

Unification of the Sri Lankan Sangha: Under the rule of the awesome Parakkamabahu 1, the three main sects of Sri Lankan Buddhism were unified. This happened around 1165 CE. The king lamented that, while kings in the past had made tremendous efforts to unify the Sangha, they never managed to do so, because of the endless squabbling of the monks. This reform was really the start of Theravada in the modern sense as a dominant force in S-E Asia. From then on, the diverse traditions of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and other regions came to be brought more and more under the specific traditions of the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. Diversity remained underneath the ‘official’ religion as local and regional customs, beliefs, and practices. This reform, like more recent changes in the structure of Thai Buddhism, was only made possible due to State control.

Comments by Ven Sumangala Thera

Here is a short piece written recently by Ven Sumangala Mahanayaka Thera on bhikkhuni ordination, which he has kindly forwarded to me.

Ven Sumangala has been instrumental in introducing bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka through the Dumbulla chapter of the Siam Nikaya. As his article suggests, this is also linked with his belief that ordination within caste, which is normal in the Siam Nikaya, is an innovation that has no support from the Vinaya. The Buddha frequently said that in entering the Sangha we are leaving behind all socially constructed notions of ‘class’ or ‘caste’, and saw the Sangha as quite separate from these constructions of inequality. In both cases we see the narrowing and increasing exclusivity of ordination in comparison with the radical renunciation of social norms that was envisaged by the Buddha.

I would especially point out the statement in the third paragraph of the second page, which very clearly states the notion of consensus as mandated in the Vinaya: the ordination should be carried out with the agreement of the Sangha in the sima, in accordance with Dhamma and Vinaya. Obtaining consent of Sangha elsewhere is not a necessity in Vinaya.

On the contrary, as Ajahn Brahm has pointed out to me, the Sangha is obliged to accept the validity of a sanghakamma that has been well carried out, in accordance with pacittiya 63:

Should any bhikkhu knowingly agitate for the reviving of an issue that has been rightfully dealt with, it is to be confessed.

Parliament of World’s Religions (2)

I haven’t had the chance to blog about my recent experience at the Parliament of the World’s religions in melbourne – hopefully I’ll do something soon. But in the meantime, here’s a terrific speech that was recorded by Jimmy Carter for the parliament, addressing a concern for all of us: women and religion.

Here’s the video, and here’s the transcript.


I have been waiting for someone to comment – publicly – on the ramifications of Venerable Thanissaro’s pronouncement that the Vinaya rule against ordaining more than a single nun at one time during a year
renders the ordination invalid.

As you all know, the great Emperor Ashoka sent his daughter Theri Sanghamitta to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C. She travelled with several of her nuns at the invitation of Queen Anula and her five hundred court ladies who wished to be ordained. This ordination was subsequently carried out by Sanghamitta – but there is nowhere a suggestion that it was done one candidate at a time annually. If so most of those devoted ladies would have died long before entering the sangha. Later on according to the Mahavamsa chronicle there were 14,000 bhikkhunis who attained arahantship and 90,000 nuns participated in a consecration ceremony. Even given the tendency to exaggeration, this means that the bhikkhuni sangha was very strong in Sri Lanka.

In the 4th century CE bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka travelled to China and established the bhikkhuni order there by ordaining 300 Chinese nuns and of course this lineage has continued down to the present day with tens of thousands of bhikshunis spread throughout China, Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam.

But according to Venerable Thanissaro’s premise none of these above ordinations is valid! So for the past two and a half millennia nuns have been passing on and receiving invalid ordinations and there are therefore no ordained nuns in existence – nor have there been almost since the time of the Buddha. In addition, since in East Asian countries the shramanerika ordination is bestowed by bhikshunis, these ordinations are also not valid. All those hundreds of thousands of nuns throughout the centuries were in fact not nuns at all and not a part of the monastic sangha. How absurd.

It is also sad to think of an eminent scholar monk combing the Vinaya to prove that the ordination of devoted women eager to go forth in faith, was invalid and futile. Fortunately other scholars have come to the defence of the bhikshuni sangha with well-reasoned refutations, so hopefully we bhikshunis are not required to give back our robes.

All good wishes in the Dharma,

Tenzin Palmo

Statement from the WAM

Here is the official statement issued by the Ajahns who attended the WAM, held from 7-9 December 2009. I don’t have a final list of those who attended.

wam document_final 11 Dec 09

I won’t go into a detailed analysis, as there is little new here. Essentially, the Ajahns don’t give any ground, but are solely concerned to justify their positions. There is a very brief acknowledgement of the letters and petitions that were delivered, but no serious attempt to address the issues and concerns.

I would like to just comment on one almost by-the-by statement in the paper.

There was a sense of frustration that we had not as yet been able to adequately transmit our understanding of the various issues raised, accompanied by an acknowledgment that it was hard to see how it could have been any other way. Our commitment to the principle of consultation and consensus meant that we had no choice but to delay crafting a coherent response until we could come together as a group and discuss the matter face to face.

On one level, this is fair enough: as a group, they need to formulate a group response, and this takes time. But it is also disingenuous, because they are also individuals who speak ‘from the heart’ – as the standard Forest Tradition approach emphasizes – on all kinds of crucial issues. While a ‘corporate’ response is needed, this does not hinder making personal statements – at least, not in other issues.

I have a decidedly ambivalent attitude when conflict is said to be caused by ‘communication’ – made famous in such stories as Ajahn Brahm’s ‘chicken and duck’. Sometimes, it is just the communications that is at fault, and it goes without saying that we can and should all strive to improve.

Yet my experience teaches me that, time and time again, the issue is not the manner of communications, it is the substance that causes the real problems. One test that I use is this. Look at the communications, at those who are doing the communicating, and see what real world issues there are. Is it, for example, a problem of language and translation? Or is it that people are too timid to articulate their needs? Or is it that no-one is listening? Or that there are no adequate channels or means of communication?

When I do that in our current situation, it strikes me that none of these things are really a problem, except for communications between the Thai Sangha and the rest of the world. This is a genuine, serious problem, and one which I think needs a lot of effort to overcome. But with the Western monks, they are intelligent, articulate men; they have access to any kinds of technology they need; and they have a ready-made audience of people who are bending their ears, striving to hear everything they say. People sit in absolute silence, soaking up every nuance of the words that emerge in a Dhamma talk; and there is an eager yearning to hear what they have to say on this issue, which we have seen all over the world. Yet they still feel that they cannot communicate properly, and this hurts.

If being misunderstood is painful – which it is – then what of those who are systematically silenced? What of those, especially women, whose voices have never been listened to properly in the history of Buddhism? How are the marginal, the powerless, to feel, when thousands of voices are dismissed in a few lines?

I have noticed a pattern of communication, most obviously from the English Sangha, where the concern for ‘form’ or ‘tone’ becomes not merely a part of the discussion, but completely displaces any response to the content.

For example, many years ago, Ajahn Brahm wrote a piece on dependent origination, where he critiques the so-called ‘one lifetime interpretation’. The critique was directed at Ven Payutto’s book on the topic, although his ideas are shared with many in the Western Sangha. Obviously, in a subtle matter such as this, it is natural that there be a variety of opinions, which should be discussed in the Sangha. Ajahn Brahm raised a number of important, substantive problems with the ‘one lifetime interpretation’. But these were practically ignored, as response focused on what was perceived as Ajahn Brahm’s ‘tone’. Some aspects of the ‘tone’ included, for example, that he quoted from the Pali texts in ALL CAPS, which was seen as like shouting. Fair enough, it’s a good stylistic point; but Ajahn Brahm did it that way because they didn’t have a computer so it was all on a manual typewriter and that was the only convenient way to distinguish the Pali and the English. A minor stylistic nuance, and an understandable part of the debate. But after a flurry of discussion around these issues, it just went away, and monks continued to teach one-life dependent origination while simply ignoring the serious doctrinal problems this raises. The situation remains, and in this, as in very many other central doctrinal matters, the Ajahn Chah Sangha tolerates a wide diversity of incompatible views. The fact that one-life dependent origination is highly controversial and clearly contradicts the Theravada position (and also the interpretation of other schools) does not seem to be a problem, even though theoretically this could make the difference as to whether it is possible to be enlightened or not.

This is just one example, but for me it has become a red flag. Whenever i see discussion diverted to focus of the manner of communication, I ask myself whether there are genuine communications problems; if I can’t see them, I suspect that what is really happening is avoidance. When a superficial concept of ‘harmony’ is stressed above all others I look to the substance of the debate. When there is an excessive insistence on ‘harmony’, we lose the capacity to tolerate and dialogue with difference.

I don’t believe that the widespread opposition to the WPP’s actions, and the call for a serious reform of the role of women in the Sangha, has anything to do with a communications problem. I think we understand the Ajahns perfectly well. We understand that the tradition is important to them; we understand that they feel hurt that they weren’t consulted; we understand that they value harmony. Better communications will do nothing to change this.

The problem is not one of communications, especially from the Ajahns’ side. The problem is one of values. I believe that inequality and discrimination are fundamentally wrong. They contradict the Dhamma, they cause harm, and they go against the noblest values that are widely accepted in the world. Preservation of a tradition is, as a rule, a good thing, but it can never outweigh such fundamental values. Where a tradition contradicts such ethical values, it should be reformed. This is the ongoing nature of all traditions anyway, that they are in a constant state of transformation. such a reform should be guided by ethical principles and the genuine needs of people, not by the interests of the institutions.

The letter from the WAM imagines the Theravada tradition to be ‘like a gnarled and deeply rooted oak…’ This is a telling sense of their own self-perception. Compare this with Ajahn Chah’s famous simile: Thai Buddhism is like an old mango tree – big but bearing few, sour fruit – while Buddhism in the West was like a sapling – small, but with great potential.

Now the WAM identifies itself with the old tree. It sees long-lasting and strength comes from size, age, and thickness. But in nature, long-lasting comes from the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Each organism inherits its DNA, its genotype; but the phenotype emerges in dynamic response to its environment. Recent biology emphasizes the role of the – i forget the name for them – the widgets in the cell that ‘read’ the DNA. They go to one segment of DNA, select and copy that, and use it for its purpose.

This is just like a tradition, very literally how the Pali canon is used. Selected bits are pulled from the shelves and used for specific purposes, while the vast bulk remains there, like so-called ‘junk DNA’.

What this dynamic scenario shows is that, while the DNA is important in providing a store of potential information – the wisdom of the ages – the survival of the organism really depends on the behavior of those who read that information and put it into practice in a way that responds to the immediate needs on the environmental niche.