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.