My Experiences with Ignorance and Poverty and How our Effort Can Make a Change

Here’s a very moving piece by a Buddhist nun on her experiences with violence against women. I hope we can all try to be more aware of these terrible problems and do what we can to overcome them.

When I was a child, sometimes our neighbor came to take shelter in our house. She often came with her small children (2-5 of them). This happened from time to time because whenever her husband was drunk he would hit his wife cruelly and chase away their children. This usually happened late at night.

One day he ventured into our house to snatch his wife and children to his house in order to do whatever he pleased with them, but my mother and all my brothers and sisters stood up to protect poor women and her children. When I asked my elders to report this matter to the local authority, they told me that it is an in-house or family matter and nobody cared about it. For many decades, in Vietnam, a country ruled by purely communist party, who claim to promote gender justice along with total equal right in society, still there were no laws to protect victims of domestic violence.

When I grew bigger, I came to know that there are many cases of domestic violence and rape (often incest), but nobody talked about this matter publicly. It is considered shameful, therefore the people who suffer, mostly women and children, keep silent. The result is that many of them either commit suicide, become mentally disturbed, or suffer depression for many years. I felt so helpless in such a society and culture.

Just in 2008, the Vietnamese government made some effort to discuss this matter in their parliament and eventually some laws were issued to punish the perpetrators and provide some measure to protect the victims. This has nothing to do with Buddhism, because the context I experienced was in a non-Buddhist region.

In a conference on the theme of domestic violence held in Bangkok in March 2007, I came to know that an estimated 3 000 to 5 000 Vietnamese young girls were sold every year through the borders to Cambodia or China to become child-prostitutes.

I met a girl of 14 years of age in Bangkok. She had been rescued by a Thai woman social worker from a brothel where more than 100 children from different countries were kept. She told me that her parents who lived in Cambodia had sold her to a man for only $200 US!

As I knew further through other sources, there are about 10 000 to 20 000 Vietnamese young women were forcibly married to foreigners (mostly to Taiwan, Korea, and Malaysia) every year, and sadly most of them become sex-slaves in their strange husbands’ houses. In this kind of marriage, the family of the poor woman gets about $US 200 to 1000. This is how young girls and young women from the poorest areas of the world sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their family.

The number I cited above are only estimates, because no formal and legal investigations were authorized by the local government. It is noteworthy that young girls and women who are sold or deceived to go to other countries for a job are from rural provinces where people are predominantly either Theravada Buddhists or without religion. Most of them are totally ignorant about the sex industry and their fate.

When I asked some monks from these areas to give religious talks concerning these problems, they appeared very uncomfortable at my idea and the information I gave them.

And they told me: “It is their Karma (i.e., fate in this context), we have nothing to do with that.” At that point, I felt some indignant at Buddhist monks who supposed to be compassionate and caring persons.

I started thinking to make Buddhist nuns (Bhikkhuni) more involved in this matter. This works better. Many nuns feel concerned and indeed, many nuns’ monasteries in Vietnam have become havens for the destitute, especially poor women and girls. I tried to get more nuns involved and encourage them to go to rural areas to establish Buddhist centres for education to help poor and uneducated people to live a better life.

Unfortunately, this was obstructed by the very Buddhist administration in the only legal Buddhist organization in Vietnam.

I myself went to some rural areas in Hatinh, Nghe An and Hagiang provinces. I got in touch with some of the women’s associations in these areas, gave religious talk and distributed booklets concerning the welfare and happiness of individuals and of family and society in general. This is just an individual effort, but fortunately, I was welcomed by the local people and community’s administrators. I wish we can do this in a more organized way, especially concerning financial and spiritual support.

In 2007, a layman from Malaysia asked us: “What can you, Bhikkhunis, do for us?” At first, many Bhikkhunis around me were puzzled! His question becomes a Koan (a subject to contemplate upon) to me for years, especially concerning domestic violence.

Most of the perpetrators are husbands or fathers; how can I tell them not to use violent means to get their wife or children to obey their will? What can I do to change a cultural context where husbands have the right to do whatever they pleased with their wives and children? This is a very crucial point because unless we get men to be aware of the evil consequences of their violent actions, they would just act out their impulses.

Sadly, there is no organization or institution in South East Asian that gives a formal education to men concerning the standard of moral relationship. Most of the people who come to listen to religious talks in Temples or Churches are elderly women.

Last year, some of my Buddhist friends in Kula Lumpur, Malaysia reported that they have organized pre-marriage courses based on Buddhist valuation of a moral marriage life. I felt thrilled and on my part, I edited a very important Buddhist text on social relationships named Singalovada Sutta (DN 31) to publish for free distribution in Vietnam. This works very well, as soon after the books come to the readers, many report to me that it helps them a lot in understanding their responsibilities toward family as well as to society. Some men even say that if they knew this discourse earlier, they would have not committed many mistakes or sins in their lives.


The Burden of Denial

Here’s an insightful piece on some of the broader issues that have been brought up by the bhikkhuni ordination. It’s by Thanissara, who was one of the original siladhara and now is a Dhamma teacher.

In spite of my great debt of gratitude and respect for many monastic elders within the Western forest community I cannot agree with the view that perceived ‘Western demands for gender equality, individual rights and social justice fall outside the practice of Dhamma-vinaya’. The historical movement Buddhism has always allowed for adaptability. Its transmission from one culture to another is not brought about through a rigidity of position but is a flexible process. Buddhism has always allowed itself to be influenced by the culture and the times it is within. The Buddha set a great precedent by using every day conversational language, (Magadhi – closely related to Pali) rather than the language of those who held religious power – Sanskrit. Translation is not just literal to language and culture, but also to the appropriate placement of Dhamma within the time and place it is emerging.

Clearly to transplant one cultural expression of Dhamma into another culture without due consideration to the time and place of the recipient culture is not the best way to ensure vitality and continuity of lineage.
In regards Buddhism entering the West, it has encountered strong influences such as: democracy (which includes lively debate), engaged social action, psychology and feminism, all within the context of the diminishing influence of hierarchy in society. All these influences have inter-faced with the transmission of Dhamma which has generated a dynamic dialogue, one that I would hope can has no fixed conclusions, but can remain open & responsive. To assume that Buddhism is static and beyond any influence or above any cultural consideration is, I feel, a confusion of levels of reality. The only non-changing principle is Nibbana while both Vinaya and Dhamma have flexibility within them. The danger in overly applying ultimate principles to the relative realm is that it leads to a lack of compassion and a veering into a lack of deeper ethic.

These recent events around the placement of nuns within the forest order has brought forth a seeming stated lack of interest in any engaged dialogue, even within the monastic community itself. Instead we have been presented with a ‘party line’ or an official public face that seems increasingly more rigid and uncompromising, one that is not porous and one that is unwilling to receive feedback. This shuts down more authentic and honest group reflection and process. Instead one is being asked to let go of all discernment, all inquiry and concern and to trust the system as it is presented. Also there is the suggestion that if one doesn’t that there is no understanding of the true Dhamma.

It is hard to trust this ‘ultimate approach’ when there seems to be a lack of compassionate interest in feedback, something which surely the Buddha encouraged, and a lack of public honesty regards how much the monastic community in the West, and individuals within it, have been helped by other supports beyond a strict interpretation of how Thai Forest Buddhism is supposed to be lived out. Over the years both individual monastics and the monastic communities within the EU have relied a lot on non Buddhist approaches for their inner development and for the development of the community. Whether it be the on-going support of therapy, therapists, process work or the drawing from other teachers and lineages – even the main meditation method that Ajahn Sumedho uses is an obscure Hindu practice – listening the Nada sound – or as he calls it, the sound of silence. Perhaps there should be more public acknowledgement in this regard; otherwise lay people don’t get a fuller picture of how complex the lived process of awakening actually is.

They don’t get an accurate picture of how much the healing and integration of the personal and communal has been dependent on inter-personal therapeutic process, not just a leap to the ultimate. The insistence of reverting only to the ultimate level has led to community dysfunction and increases the possibility of ‘spiritual by-passing’, where important psychological developmental tasks are thwarted and denied. For example practitioners need to discern what is true transcendence and what is a premature ‘non attachment’ that masks the fear and denial of complex emotional feelings that get evoked in human relationship.
A phrase that has been going through my mind regards all these recent developments is ‘the burden of denial’. When difficult emotions are dismissed or disowned in the name of spiritual purity then that energy gets projected on the ‘other’ For example, when I was a young nun at a formal morning work meeting, I was quietly minding my own business when the abbot came into the meeting. He was clearly upset as he had just disrobed a monk. For myself I didn’t have a particular problem with the monk disrobing, I was just observant of the fact that he was now sitting in lay clothes. However the abbot was angry and yet was pretending that everything was OK. Suddenly a wave of energy hit me, and I found myself consumed with so much grief and upset that I had to leave the meeting and then found myself weeping for two solid hours. It was so clear that it wasn’t my energy, I just happened to have been a vehicle for displaced grief and anger. (And for my trouble was seen as an emotional nun)

When due care and consideration on the relative level of human relationship is denied, (admitting that it can be messy and challenging) and the ultimate level of reality is used as a justification for avoidance of complexity then who carries the dysfunction, who carries the pain?

If ultimate teachings are used to ‘wall off’ authentic human relationship and inter-action then perhaps we do need to really explore what enlightenment actually is as a lived experience? Particularly at this time of planetary crisis when pulling together is so needed, rather than further splitting along lines of lay, monastic, male, female, east, west. In this regard I find the template used by John Welwood of ‘the genuine person’,  a helpful one. For me it talks to the inner integration and marriage of male and female – of ultimate and relative.
“If the only two choices we had were to live in the samsaric ego or in our larger buddha nature, then digging into all the messy issues, emotional conflicts, and communication problems that crop up in personal relationships would not have great value. As a distraction from awakening to our larger nature, it would simply be dirtying our hands. But if we allow for a third truth — the genuine person—then working with our relational issues has real importance and value. For interpersonal work helps the person to develop and evolve, to become a more transparent vessel through which absolute truth becomes embodied on this earthly plane.” John Welwood

Theravada (particularly the male forest marshal archetype of conquering ‘the kilesa’) has held an ‘up and out’ paradigm. I’m not sure it is working overly well for what is needed now. Maybe – as Ajahn Chah encouraged; ‘don’t be a Buddha or bodhisattva, be an earth worm’ – a ‘down and through’ the mud of human relationship is what is needed. Perhaps this is the new frontier (again as Welwood says) ‘the uncharted territory still waiting to be explored.’ If we picked up this exploration, one that also encouraged dialog within the four-fold assembly, there would be only one way to go: we would see that men and women, Bhikkhu & Bhikkhuni are not only equal on an ultimate or ideal level – but also on a relative level – in terms of attitude, honouring, support, placement and potential, and perhaps we may also stretch to look at the lay vehicle (in service of dhamma) as one that is equally worthy for awakening – including the realm of intimate, loving and committed relationship.
Those then that choose monasticism can do so from a place of inner freedom, confidence and maturity and therefore would not need to demonize women or put down the lay life in order to hold onto a psychological prop to maintain their sense of superiority or entitlement. This so called ‘divisiness’ that is currently blamed on those ‘outside’ would be gathered back to the heart. A holistic vision could emerge and there would be the inner freedom to love and cherish this poor and aching world.

Darryl’s funeral

For all Darryl’s friends out there, his funeral is set at:

Monday the 1st of February at 2pm, Prince Henry Chapel, 50 Pine Ave, Little Bay.

To get to the chapel in Little Bay, head south on Anzac Parade, past the Maroubra turnoff. Turn left into Pine Avenue (at the 2nd newly constructed roundabout — part of the Prince Henry Hospital development). The chapel is at the end of Pine Avenue, with parking on your right.

The chapel’s phone number, if you have trouble finding it, is: 9519 5344.

Following the autopsy, Darryl was found to have had water in his lungs, so he died of drowning. There was no heart attack or similar. It is unknown how such a strong swimmer as Darryl could have drowned.

i hope to see as many of you as I can at the funeral, beside the sea that Darryl loved so well.

Darryl’s departure

For all the friends and community of Santi, I have the sad duty of passing on some tragic news. Our good friend Darryl Gradwell passed away yesterday (Monday 25 Jan). His death was sudden, and comes as a shock to all of us. We have no details as yet as to how it happened, but we’ll keep you informed as we find out. Darryl was staying on retreat with Bhante Jag at the retreat place in Laguna.

Darryl first came to the monastery a couple of years ago. He was suffering terribly from MS, and at the time had to spend most of his time resting and just coping. (I don’t know whether the MS has anything to do with his death.) But he stayed on, and his interest in Buddhism and meditation just grew and grew. In all his time here he was totally devoted to practice, and was a loved and respected member of our little community.

His struggles with MS became so bad that for several months he could hardly speak, and communicated only by writing. This became too much, so he left and spent several months by himself. He loved staying in nature, and would often spend time simply sleeping in caves or on the beach. Eventually he found a treatment that made his MS regress, and he returned, back to more or less full strength.

In his long stretches at Santi, he helped us in many ways, giving advice on buildings and development; if you visit Santi and see our beautiful, unique semi-spherical shrine upstairs, that’s one of Darryl’s ideas. He was also an amazing artist, who drew dozens of extraordinary pencil sketches for a book of mine, as well as many others. In his last month, he was drawing and taking notes of conversations constantly, all of which showed his amazing gifts for observation, and delight in the wisdom and quirks of human beings.

As well as his dedication to solitary meditation, Darryl always took a great interest in people. When our fairy grandmother Eva was ‘a little ill’ (translate: recovering from a triple bypass), Darryl would walk with her every day, and monitor her food, making sure she didn’t eat anything naughty. Every meal time there’d be signs on each inappropriate dish saying something like, ‘Eva, don’t even think about it!’

Darryl also contributed to Santi through being a committee member, and through helping organise our Sydney talks. I especially remember and value the few times when we had a difference of opinion, and he’d be straight enough to tell me why he disagreed, offering another perspective that was always worth listening to.

It’s been an honour to know Darryl, and to see him constantly learn and grow through these past years. Of all the many people who pass through Santi, he is perhaps the one to best embody the life of simplicity. Even though he was an accomplished architectural designer with his own firm, he lived with literally next to nothing. In his little retreat cave there’s be just a simple bed, mosquito net, a couple of books on meditation, and not much else. He had so much to give in his life, and asked so little. It’s tragic to see him pass away so young, but he has lived a great life, with friends, meditation, art, and wisdom. I don’t know where he is now, but I’m sure he’ll be drawing it.

Is this good?

I’ve just changed the theme of the blog, in response to the remarks some time ago that the previous style was hard to read for some people, as the font was not dark enough. I’ve had a look through the available WordPress themes, and this seems to be the one with the clearest text. It’s not fancy, but I think it’s readable. Let me know if this is ok, or if anyone has a suggestion that might work better.

UPDATE: After some feedback about the previous choice (The Journalist), I’m trying this one (Ocadia). The font is a little larger and the lines are shorter, more traditional book line length (12-15 words). It’s also a bit softer, not as stark and glarey. Feedback?

Meanwhile, here’s an article from the Sydney Morning herald about a gig I did last Sunday – the ‘World Cafe’ on happiness, as a part of the Sydney Festival.

Ajahn Brahm’s preceptor status

I’ve just been given a translation of this article, which appeared in the Thai Daily News, dated January 12, 2010.

WPP Sangha stunned: Phra Brahmavamso still claims to be a preceptor despite being excommunicated

Dr. Amnart Buasiri, Director of Office of the Secretariat of the Sangha Supreme Council (Mahathera Samakom), Office of National Buddhism, told the media after the Mahathera Samakom’s meeting at Buddhamonthon, Nakhon Pathom on January 11, 2010 that the Sangha of Wat Nong Pah Pong, Ubon Ratchathani, has submitted a letter reporting that Phra Suthisangvarathera (Phra Brahmavamso), the abbot of the Bodhiyana Monastery, Perth, Australia, a WPP Branch Monastery, who was excommunicated from the Thai Sangha for giving ordinations to bhikkhunis, still carried on inappropriate conducts such as claiming to have the preceptor status even though the WPP Sangha has confirmed that when Phra Brahmavamso was excommunicated from the Thai Sangha, all the titles he was given by the Thai Sangha would be invalidated. Therefore, the WPP Sangha would like the Mahathera Samakom to find a measure to deal with Phra Brahmavamso because they are afraid that Phra Brahmavamso’s behavior will damage the Thai Sangha’s image.

Dr. Amnart added that the Mahathera Samakom, after considering the issue, agreed that it is a situation concerning bhikkhus in a foreign country; therefore, the responsible agency directly concerned should seek a measure to deal with the situation. On February 6-7, 2010, at the Australian and New Zealand Sangha assembly, he will bring up to the meeting this issue as well as the WPP Sangha’s request to take back Bodhiyana Monastery’s land since officials from the Thai embassies of both countries will be invited to attend the said meeting.

The WPP Sangha, not content to expel Ajahn Brahm for performing bhikkhuni ordination, continues to play its new self-appointed role as bulldog of Thai State Buddhism. They do not merely wish to dissociate themselves from Ajahn Brahm, but to effectively throttle his monastery by making him unable to perform ordinations.

The “Australian and New Zealand Sangha” assembly that is referred to is not the assembly of the general Australian Sangha, who are represented by the Australian Sangha Association. It is presumably the regular gathering of the Thai missionary monks in Australia, which is administered under the Dhammayut order. Since we are not Dhammayut, I’ve never heard of any Ajahn Chah tradition monks attending these meetings; it’s purely about the in-house discussions among the Thai monks.

To understand WPP’s objections to Ajahn Brahm continuing to be regarded as an upajjhaya, a little background is necessary.

When the Ajahns from WPP visited Somdet Buddhajahn after the bhikkhuni ordination in Perth, the subject of Ajahn Brahm’s status as an officially appointed upajjhaya, as well as a Chao Kuhn, came up. Afterwards, a letter signed by LP Liem was circulated, which claimed that the Somdet had said that these titles were removed, a claim that is repeated in the above Daily News article.

However, the WPP monks who were at the meeting disagreed among themselves about what had been said, and later they amended this to acknowledge that it was only the upajjhaya title that was removed, not the Chao Kuhn. This appears to have been forgotten in the above article, which refers to ‘all the titles he was given by the Thai Sangha’.

To my knowledge, Ajahn Brahm has not made any public statements on this issue. In my conversations with him he has emphasized that he wishes to let the matter settle down before moving on in the future. The question, of course, revolves purely around the formal appointment of the title of upajjhaya under Thai State law, and has nothing to do with the requirements for being an upajjhaya in the Vinaya.

The question of an official appointment as an upajjhaya is one of the many issues that is long overdue some serious discussion. It was introduced in the 20th Century by the central Bangkok authorities as a means of exercising political control over the Sangha. It was strongly resisted in some parts of Thailand, most notably in the independent-spirited north, led by the famous monk Krooba Sri Vichai. Eventually, however, the central forces won and it is now widely accepted in Thailand that an officially appointed upajjhaya must preside over all ordinations.

This notion is a modern innovation, with few parallels in other Buddhist countries, and no precedent before the 20th century, so far as i am aware. In most countries the Sangha organizes and controls its own ordination process, without a government-sponsored body being involved. This is Vinaya. The acceptance of Thai state control over ordinations is perhaps the greatest deviation from the Vinaya in modern Buddhism. It strikes at the very heart of the Sangha.

When I spoke with LP Liem in 2008, he asked the monks I was with whether the upajjhaya appointment for Ajahn Kalyano, which was pending at the time, was proceeding well. He commented that there was no real need to have this official appointment, as Ajahn Kalyano was living in another country. The only advantage was that it might make it easier for monks visiting Thailand to get visas.

In my view, there is no reason why Ajahn Brahm should not continue giving ordinations, and no reason why these ordinations should not be accepted in Thailand and elsewhere, just as the ordinations by monks from other countries are accepted.

The Sangha has meekly acquiesced to Thai State control of its most fundamental procedure. As long as the Thai Sangha authorities continue with their usual practice of benign inactivity, no-one has really considered the political consequences. If this State control becomes leveraged for personal attacks, it will very quickly become intolerable.

Letter from a samaneri in Thailand

The following text comes from a letter written by a samaneri in Thailand to Ajahn Brahm and the Bodhinyana community. She has granted permission to have an edited version posted on this blog.

Dear Ajahn Brahm,

I’m really sorry to hear about all the fall out that has come in the wake of the bhikkhuni ordinations and the challenges directed at you personally and at the Bodhinyana community. Although I bet you are perfectly fine and equanimous in the face of all of this, I just wanted to write to express my moral support and gratitude.

Given the limited (and glacial-speed) internet access at our monastery, I came to learn of the news a bit belatedly and to be honest was surprised the ordinations happened so soon. Although I have since tried to read up on it, I haven’t been able to keep up with all the developments and the different perspectives on them all that closely. So I must say I don’t really understand all the whys and hows of the situation.

But whether I understand them or not, I trust that you had your good reasons for taking the course of action you did, reasons borne of compassion and wisdom.

It’s rare to find a monk who will care deeply enough about women’s opportunities for spiritual practice to actually do something about it. It’s rarer to find a monk who will do something major – putting in hard work and taking a stand despite the negative repercussions that could follow. A heartfelt thank you to you, the Bodhinyana monks, and all others who have contributed, for being among this rare lot.

While the success and longevity of a revived bhikkhuni sangha ultimately rests on the shoulders of the women themselves – on their commitment to studying the Dhamma-Vinaya and practicing it purely, living a life dedicated to the cultivation of virtue, mental discipline, and wisdom – the support of bhikkhus is also essential, and greatly appreciated.

Actually, the debt we owe to bhikkhus runs wider and deeper than that. The truth is, it is the example of well-practicing bhikkhus, whatever their views on bhikkhuni ordination may be, that inspires women to think of devoting their lives to the dhamma and ordaining in the first place. My bhikkhuni Ajahn here, for example, says that reading about Ajahn Mun’s life, way of practice, and teachings in the classic book Patipada was hugely motivating. It made her want to follow his example of going forth to live and practice as the Buddha did. There are also many living bhikkhus whom we are fortunate to have as role models. When women like myself look up at their bhikkhu teachers and see the fruits of their years in the robes – how beautifully, and far, they have developed on the Path – and also hear them talk about how much they love and value being a monk, we cannot help but want to follow in their footsteps. The problem is, once that aspiration is sparked, we find that the way they took is not open to us. We realize we can only “follow their footsteps” at the level of metaphor, or at best strike out into improvised, and ultimately inadequate, approximations of the ordination form the Buddha had designed for us.

Inevitably, such a situation proves unsustainable. But nothing ever gets changed unless some brave people go first. Despite the current maelstrom surrounding the Perth ordinations, and all the regrettable hurt feelings of various parties involved, I believe in the long-term so much good will come of what has happened. Actually, I think so much good already has. If the bhikkhuni issue wasn’t on many people’s minds in Thailand (and other parts of the world) before, well, it certainly is now. This may not have been the gentlest of awakenings, but at the end of the day awareness is awareness. At least the issue is now being openly discussed. That’s the crucial first step towards bringing about wider change.

When that wider change comes to fruition, and bhikkhuni sanghas are well-established in different countries, I truly believe it will be so wonderful. My conviction of this only gets firmer and firmer. Even in a mere six months of being a samaneri, I have seen so many reasons why re-establishing the bhikkhuni sangha is so important – so many ways the bhikkhuni sangha can contribute, and is contributing, to Buddhism and society. Some of these ideas I had already registered at an intellectual level beforehand. But in witnessing a real live bhikkhuni sangha in action and personally experiencing ordination, all these purported reasons are coming to life more vividly, and are proving to ring so true.

And I’m finding they’re just the tip of the iceberg. More and more reasons keep coming to light, many of which most people (even card-carrying bhikkhuni supporters like me) probably couldn’t even imagine unless they actually experience having real bhikkhunis around. The list just keeps growing; I’m losing count.

For me personally, being able to ordain as a samaneri has been such a precious opportunity. Now I get it, why this is called the ‘holy life’. Having the chance to renounce and live immersed in the dhamma has made it so clear – there is absolutely no comparison to practicing as a layperson. This is way, way better. Laypeople who say otherwise need to give it a go. (And monks who say otherwise, at least to women, ought to stop confusing them.) The benefit of a conducive environment, kalyanamittas, and the protection of higher sila – all this sounds like I am basically regurgitating what you said in that interview you gave about bhikkhunis, but now I can understand it at a different level and actually testify to the world of difference it makes in dhamma practice.

But it is more than just the chance to renounce. The form of renunciation does matter. It does to me, and it does to so many women I have encountered, whether they are ordained yet or not. I cannot put into words how deeply it moves me to be ordained into the original monastic vehicle given to us by the Buddha himself. It means so much to feel that I am truly a daughter of the Buddha. That I have a rightful place in the ordained half of the fourfold assembly he set up. That I am an authentic part of the Sasana with a designated duty in helping to carry on his dispensation. Even as a mere seedling of a real bhikkhuni, I feel it this powerfully – I can barely imagine the joy a fully-ordained bhikkhuni must feel.

It has also been so beautiful to see the complete fourfold Buddhist society reassembled in the Theravada tradition. In the past months, I have experienced several occasions where representatives of all four pillars have convened at one place at one time, and it has been a wondrous thing to behold and participate in. There is such a feeling of fullness and completion, of mutual support and goodwill, of dynamism and strength. This is how Buddhist society was meant to be. This is Buddhist society at its best.

One of the most significant, and touching, consequences of having the fourth pillar present is the impact it is having on girls and women, whose needs can now be better served. That starts with enabling them even just to discover what those needs may actually include – things that they had previously been missing and hadn’t even realized they had been missing. And then, providing channels for those needs to be expressed, and ways for them to be met.

In the time I have been here, there has been an unending stream of women, including long-standing maechees, either coming to the monastery, writing, or phoning who say they are interested in ordaining. Many others may not have thought of ordaining before, but become interested in it after having contact with the nuns here.

For those who have ordained, taking the higher precepts brings many concrete benefits. In addition to empowering personal dhamma practice, another very important, but often overlooked, advantage of the samaneri-bhikkhuni form is that it provides a highly effective system of rules and principles for governing the monastic community. My bhikkhuni Ajahn recalls that when this monastery was still a maechee center, community management was difficult as they did not have any clear guidelines. However, once they took higher ordination they were able to institute the set of rules mandated by the Buddha himself, reflecting his wisdom and evoking his authority. They have found these to be a much more solid and efficacious basis on which to run the community, producing more harmonious relations and better ways of resolving problems than they had experienced before. Once women have the benefit of living in a peaceable and orderly community, they will be better supported in their monastic vocation.

Yet it’s not just women interested in ordaining who are benefiting from the bhikkhuni sangha. Too often the discussion is framed only in these very narrow terms, which leads people to argue that offering females a decent monastic form and training similar to bhikkhunis without actually being bhikkhunis would be enough. But they’re really missing the bigger picture, the bigger point of it all. A hugely important benefit of having well-practicing bhikkhunis is that they can enhance the spreading of dhamma, especially to girls and women. They can draw more girls and women to become interested in the dhamma, and can convey that dhamma in ways that touch girls and women at a deeper level. Partly, it’s because as females they ‘speak the same language.’ Also, because women can interact more intimately with nuns, they can be exposed to dhamma teachings through informal interactions or observing daily life situations, which I myself have found often leaves a stronger, more visceral impression than what is received from formal dhamma talks.

Even more elemental than that, I feel there is just something so profoundly affirming about learning dhamma from someone who looks like you, who you can see yourself in – it seeds you with stronger faith in your own spiritual capacity. It’s true that women are told (often as a consolation for not being able to ordain) that the Buddha taught that men and women have equal potential to be enlightened. And we believe it. Or think we believe it. I certainly thought I did. But it was only after I met and interacted with inspiring nuns for the first time (just a few years ago, and I’m already in my thirties!) that something inside me truly clicked: “Hey! I really can do this!” My “this” was even quite modest – I just meant progressing in the dhamma, let alone the big Enlightenment. Feeling that jolt made me realize how tenuous and shallow my faith in my spiritual potential actually had been. It is only when women are able to see more living female role models, more commonly, that true faith in ourselves can really establish itself deep down in our hearts. Without it, we are seriously handicapped – for that faith is absolutely crucial for a person to develop, or even just to set forth, on the Path.

It’s not only me. I’ve also seen the incredible effect live bhikkhunis (and even samaneris) can have on other women. Just being able to be touched physically by the nuns is really powerful, more so than one might expect. Grown women are moved to tears by things as simple as being able to have the bhikkhunis rub their heads in blessing, the way they’ve seen men blessed by bhikkhus. Or just having a nun press them gently on the back to adjust their meditation posture can be deeply affecting. More broadly, what moves women is the feeling that they have found their refuge – women teachers they can connect with and be guided closely by and a place to practice where they can feel at home.

Aside from women already interested in ordaining, this monastery also sees a continuous flow of women and girls of all ages and backgrounds coming to visit, to help with work, or to stay and practice for a period. Even young girls and teenagers, which has been so refreshing to see. Some even opt to spend their weekends or longer school holidays here. I’ve seen many cases of young girls who are inspired to come and become more interested in the dhamma as a result of interactions with the nuns here. And sometimes the most effective bridge is not necessarily the Ajahn or senior nuns, but a junior nun closer to their age, who can be like an older sister they can relate to, look up to and be mentored by. Even little novice-novices like me have apparently inspired a kiddo or two (much to my surprise!). It’s not so easy for them to have such an experience at a bhikkhu monastery, where they would only have more limited contact with the monks, especially junior monks.

It’s true that all these benefits can be offered to some degree by other forms of nuns. But one simply can’t deny there is a more powerful effect when it comes from nuns wearing these robes, all the more so in a traditionally Buddhist country where the saffron robes are steeped with so much meaning and elicit so much respect. So many women and girls have said they were so happy to see “phra poo ying” (female monks) for the first time, many being moved to tears. Many men, including monks, and boys have expressed similar sentiments as well (although maybe not the tears part).

Indeed, what has been revelatory to me is the way it’s not just girls and women, but also boys and men who have really found something valuable in the bhikkhuni sangha. Some of the monastery’s most faithful and active supporters are actually men. Even men who at first objected to having to bow to a woman are happy to do it now, because they have gained a lot of benefit from the dhamma taught and lived by the nuns here.

Granted, this bhikkhuni-samaneri community in Northern Thailand is still relatively new, so I don’t mean to overstate things too prematurely. Of course there is still much to be figured out and developed in converting from a maechee to a bhikkhuni monastery, but I think what they have achieved and the contributions they have been made so far bode well.

This has really become a much longer letter than what I started out intending to write, but I just wanted to share with you what is happening here as a ‘case study’ of a bhikkhuni-samaneri community that offers living proof of how much good has come from re-establishing bhikkhunis, and how much it has meant to people. It’s so important, your work in helping to support the bhikkhuni revival. What you are doing and saying has a far wider impact than Perth or Australia, giving encouragement and uplift to people all over the world. I hope you all know how much it is appreciated by so many. (And will be appreciated by more before too long, even if they don’t realize it yet!)

With respect and best wishes for the new year,

A Samaneri in Thailand

Catholic nuns in US face scrutiny

Here’s a few articles from the New York Times on the recent investigations into the nuns of the US.

U.S. Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny
The Nuns’ Story
New Nuns and Priests Seen Opting for Tradition

While the nuns do much of the hands-on work for the Church, they have become increasingly suspected of drifting away from the Vatican’s priorities. The tenor of the criticism is captured in this statement attributed to Cardinal Levada, who replaced Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope) as the head of the the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Cardinal Levada sent a letter to the Leadership Conference saying an investigation was warranted because it appeared that the organization had done little since it was warned eight years ago that it had failed to “promote” the church’s teachings on three issues: the male-only priesthood, homosexuality and the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church as the means to salvation.

It’s stunning how ‘Christianity’ is absent from these tenets. Comparisons with recent developments in Thailand are, alas, inevitable.

Modernism and post-modernism

A little discussion about Ken Wilber a few days ago put me in mind of an observation he once made. I can’t remember exactly where, but it was something like: religions are still struggling to catch up with modernism, and have no idea how to begin dealing with post-modernism. I think this is a very insightful remark, and would like to examine it a little in the context of Buddhism, especially our relationship with Buddhist texts.

What does modernism mean here? Well essentially, when modern Buddhist studies began in mid-19th century, scholars learned the various traditional discourses. Theravada was the original, pristine teachings while Mahayana was a degenerate fabrication; or else Mahayana was the true embodiment of the Buddha’s wisdom, while Theravada was partial and narrow; and so on. You can still hear these claims in many temples today.

When these claims were subject to scrutiny along text-critical and historical lines, a different picture emerged. This was based on a study of the claims of all the schools, in addition to the revelations that were emerging from ancient India as it exposed itself to the archaeologists’ picks. The consensus view was that the Pali canon, with important reservations, represented the early Buddhist texts, and if the legendary embroideries were disregarded it could be accepted as a fairly reliable record of the Buddha’s teachings. Even those scholars who believed that the early canon was badly corrupted (e.g. CAF Rhys Davids) still had faith that the early message of the Buddha could be restored by means of textual criticism. The Mahayana Sutras were obviously later (500-1000 years after the Buddha), and the Vajrayana later still. This picture reinforced the Theravadin claim to orthodoxy, although at the same time the scholars were universally agreed that the Abhidhamma was a late addition, as was much of the Vinaya.

It is fairly obvious that this scholarly consensus has made little inroads to Buddhist culture. Despite being embraced by many prominent leaders, such as King Mongkut in Thailand, still we find Theravadins constantly asserting that the Abhidhamma was spoken by the Buddha; indeed most monks believe that the entire Vinaya is literally Buddhavacana, and so on. Within Mahayana circles, there have been great monks such as Yin Shun who have taken the historical analysis of Buddhism perhaps even further than the Western academics, and yet the anti-historical idea that the Mahayana texts were literally spoken by the Buddha is still accepted without question in all but elite intellectual circles.

This consensus lasted more or less for a hundred years or so until it was challenged on various grounds. Some of those challenges strike at the truth claims of the modernist consensus; for example, it is alleged that we can have no real knowledge of what the Buddha taught (a claim that I don’t find plausible). The more cogent of the post-modern critiques do not change the essential historical picture, but question how reliably we can reconstruct ‘the’ early Buddhism, given that there must have been great diversity from the beginning. A pristine and perfect ‘canon’ is itself the outcome of an ideological process. Rather than positing a hypothetical reconstructed ‘original’ Buddhism, post-modernists point to the diversity and relativity of the Buddhist textual scene, and question the relationship between text and practice.

For example, the modernist view tended to equate Theravadin doctrine with the Pali canon and commentaries. This viewpoint early on assumed a political significance. The Thai king in the late 19th century sponsored the first printings of the Tipitaka in modern book form, and even sent donations to England for the Pali Text Society. The way that Buddhist texts were disseminated was radically influenced by a new technology – the printed book – colonial geopolitics, and nationalist ideology. The Thai king could sponsor the printing of a set of books that would constitute the uniform doctrinal foundation for his nation’s religion, as an antidote to the twin threat of colonialists and missionaries.

Reports from around this time reveal that hardly any monasteries actually possessed a copy of the entire Tipitaka, still less the commentaries. Many monasteries only had a small collection of books. Often the teaching was based on was what called a ‘nissaya‘, which was basically a set of lecture notes by a local teacher. These would be used as the basis for classes, and copied down by the students. So the actual Buddhist education was diverse and local, and it was replaced by a uniform, national set of canonical texts.

But of course the canon itself is unwieldy and difficult, and to this day hardly any monks, at least in Thailand, actually read it at all. Even when I arrived at Wat Nanachat in 1993, we did not have the entire canon in English translation, and hardly anything in Pali. The Thai Tipitaka was there, kept safe in a cabinet that was rarely opened. If that was the situation in a monastery like Nanachat, in the vast majority of other monasteries it was far more extreme.

In fact the actual texts used to pass down ‘Theravada Buddhism’ are the Jatakas and various stories mainly from the Dhammapada commentary. As a monastic friend has just reminded me, such texts are almost never read by Western monks. If they read Buddhist scripture at all, they read the canonical Suttas and Vinaya. Traditional Buddhist communities, on the other hand, virtually ignore the canonical literature and would be mystified if they were told, say, that the Jatakas were folk-tales that were adopted into Buddhism as teachings, and were not really the past lives of the Buddha.

Yet the Jatakas, as well as including lots of great stories (and many fairly ordinary ones) contain much that is implausible or unpalatable, including some pretty virulent misogyny. If we read them today we are disgusted; but how are we to relate to the fact that these texts have been handed down, apparently without criticism, for thousands of years, by people who really thought they were the words of the Buddha? What are we to say to people who would defend their authenticity? How have such narratives contributed to the modern Buddhist cultures?

Far from being a monolithic textual orthodoxy, traditional Theravada has been full of diverse, contradictory local customs and teachings, which struggle in an ongoing tension with the centralizing forces of nationalism. I’m not trying to criticize the centralist forces here. I agree with them, pretty much, that the Pali canon (and corresponding early texts in other languages) is the Real Thing, and gets us as close as we can to what is of greatest interest to me, the words of the Buddha himself. I am just pointing out that the situation and agendas of those like you and me who read the Suttas for spiritual inspiration and learning is not necessarily the same as those who promote them on an ideological basis.

Another question raised by post modern theorists include the relationship between text and experience. The more radical question the category of experience itself, but more relevant is the question of what is the relationship between a text that is used as the basis for a meditation teaching, and the nature of the meditative experiences that the teaching will lead to. I have shown, i think convincingly (or at least no-one has managed to refute me) that the Satipatthana Sutta is a late compilation, and the the aspects of it that emphasize vipassana are mostly peculiar to one particular redaction. This calls into question the textual basis of most Theravada meditation in the 20th century; yet there is no doubt that the meditation techniques that have been developed, though on faulty textual grounds, are nevertheless still effective.

These are just some of the issues that post-modern analysis has raised, which have yet to be seriously digested in Buddhist communities. I think these are interesting and important questions. Yet post-modernism itself is probably on its way out, and we will face a whole new set of questions in the next generation, questions that we haven’t even learned how to ask yet.