The following is a little piece by the Burmese ex-bhikkhuni Saccavadi that was circulated some time ago; I republish it here for those who are not familiar with her story. She was one of the most promising monastics of her generation, and regularly topped the State-sponsored Sangha exams in Myanmar. This is what happened when she returned to Myanmar as a bhikkhuni.
In 1981, the Burmese government formed an organization called the State Sangha Nayaka Council, (hereafter referred to as the SSNC). The council consists of 47 elder monks whose duties include helping to resolve disputes within the monastic community as well as serving as interpreters of the ancient Buddhist Pali canon. When the SSNC was formed, the council officially gave the name ‘thilashin’ to all female monastics which unfortunately can denote an inferior status compared to the word ‘novice’ or ‘monk’ given to the male monastics. A thilashin is restricted to taking 8 precepts which prevents her from becoming a bhikkhuni (a female monk) with the accompanying 311 precepts originally handed down by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. It is important to note that the term ‘thilashin’, along with the inferior status associated with the name, cannot be found in the Buddhist Pali canon. According to the Buddhist Pali canon, the Buddha ordained both male and female monks.
I would like to relate my own experience in dealing with the SSNC. In 1986, in Burma, when I was 21 years old, I ordained as a thilashin. 12 years later, in late 1998, I moved to Sri Lanka in order to immerse myself in the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture and to study critical analysis in Buddhist literature at the University. I was surprised to learn that there were bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka who were wearing the same color robes as the bhikkhus. These bhikkhunis, like their male counterparts the bhikkhus, did not handle money, did not cook for themselves and survived solely on the offerings of the lay community.
I had been a thilashin for 16 years and became eager to ordain as a bhikkhuni after having learned of the existence of the community of female Buddhist monks. I consulted about this with the bhikkhus at the Burmese temple located in the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo. I was told that women can never be bhikkhunis. The bhikkhus at the temple also lodged a complaint regarding my intention to ordain as a bhikkhuni to the SSNC. In 2003, despite the written objections from the SSNC in Burma, I proceeded with my ordination in Sri Lanka, and donned the robes of a bhikkhuni.
In early 2005 I had became aware that my father, who resided in Burma, had become gravely ill. I wanted to visit with him and flew to Burma. The SSNC had learned of my visit and opened a formal investigation regarding my ordination.
In the end, the SSNC decided that it was a crime for a female to be ordained as a bhikkhuni. Their decision was made based upon what I felt was a biased interpretation of the Pali canon. On May 27, 2005 I was brought before the 47 monks of the SSNC. The monks presented me with a document that had four requests written upon it. The first request was to bow three times to the council of monks of the SSNC. The second request was to remove my bhikkhuni’s robes and replace them with the robes of thilashin. The third request was to sign the document admitting that I was foolish and wrong. The fourth request was to read these admissions aloud.
I bowed to the monks three times. As for the second request I stepped behind a privacy screen and removed my robes and put on clothes of a lay person. Regarding the third request I relented and signed the document given to me. But as for the fourth request I could not bring myself to abide. In the end I refused to read aloud the written passages asking forgiveness of the monks but instead I addressed the lay people in the audience. I said to the lay people:
‘Please forgive me if I have abused your support. I have accepted your alms-food not as a beggar but as a female monastic who has tried to follow the noble teaching of the Buddha.’
Again the council requested me to read aloud the admission of guilt exactly as it was written on the document given to me. Again I refused. At that point the council informed me I would be sentenced to five years in prison. I was immediately taken into custody and eventually sent to the general prison of Yangon. All of these events transpired one month after my father’s death.
Once in prison, I was confronted with many challenges that included corrupt police, threats of rape, and horrible living conditions. Thoughts of suicide were eventually replaced with a renewed energy and resolve to work for a more compassionate interpretation of Theravāda Buddhism in regards to female monastics. No beds, no blankets or pillows were given to the prisoners and due to the over crowed conditions we were forced to sleep on the floor laying on one side next to one another. Mosquitoes, bed-bugs, and rats were a daily nuisance. Sanitation was almost non existent. Leaking roofs meant the prisoners were often wet. Urine and feces overflowed the toilets on to the floor. Soon I realized prison was a place where prisoners would often face an early death.
In the end I was released after having served 76 days. My early release was due to my plight being publicized by the BBC and the RFA (Radio Free Asia) along with the help of family members, some of whom had a military background. I was given another chance to meet the four requests of the SSNC. I performed the four requests including reading aloud my admission of guilt. No longer welcome in Burma I was driven to the airport and put on a plane headed to Sri Lanka where upon arrival I put on my bhikkhuni’s robes and moved back into the monastery to continue my Buddhist practice which included working towards my doctorate at the Post-Graduate Institute of Pali & Buddhist Studies, at the University of Kelaniya.
I would like to say that my experience of being a thilashin for 16 years and a bhikkhuni for 5 years has overall been a positive one. I have had the honor of having great teachers in my life, both male and female. The majority of monks I have known have been essentially good people and many of them support women ordaining as bhikkhunis.
In conclusion it is my strong opinion that Burma should have a democratic style of government and that there should be a separation of church and State with a guarantee of religious freedom for both males and females. Burma suffers from a very high poverty and unemployment rate. Corruption is common. I feel that in order for Burma to live in peace and prosperity that the military government and the democratically elected President, Miss Aung Sang Su Kyi, who is presently under house arrest, should work together in reconciliation with the best interests of the country in mind. Help from the international communities in whatever capacity they can offer should be welcomed.
Following her release, Bhikkhuni Saccavādī returned to Sri Lanka. Later she went to the USA, where she stayed with her friend, Bhikkhuni Guṇasārī, at time of writing the only other Burmese bhikkhuni. Suffering from her traumatic experiences, she disrobed in February 2008.
The sense of calm acceptance that emerges from this little essay, together with her gentle praise of the kindness of monks, is, in my experience, typical of the spirit of those women who have persevered in their bhikkhuni vocation. I might add that I have found Burmese monks who live overseas to be quietly supportive of bhikkhunis. It is not an ethnic thing, it is an ideology.
26 thoughts on “Saccavadi’s story”
It is an inspiring as well as tragic story. Unenlightened monks sadly committed unwholesome acts. They not only harmed particular individuals but also set themselves back on the path to enlightenment and destroyed the core teachings of the Buddha. I’m not condemning them. Nurturing anger is an unwholesome practice. Thanks to Ajahn Brahm for keeping reminding us. 🙂
In regard to the appearance that many monks support bhikkhunis, I don’t want to sound cynical, but my experience so far has revealed that they ‘say’ they support bhikkhuni ordinations but they then would express that it is not possible according to this and that and add that nonetheless, women can get enlightened as laypeople. In short, in actuality, they do nothing to support their ‘words’.
That is why I bow to Aj Brahm and Aj Sujato and Bodhiyana Monastery monks for their sincere compassion to all beings.
The sense of calm acceptance that emerges from this little essay, together with her gentle praise of the kindness of monks, is, in my experience, typical of the spirit of those women who have persevered in their bhikkhuni vocation.
What choice do they have? – They can stew in rage and/or disappointment at their powerlessness, wearing themselves down with exhaustion. Or, they can find a way to live with the way things are – hence the acceptance.
I ask this seriously. I’m not trying to pick a fight. What choice do they have?
When I first read this post, I felt mostly anger. And then I reread this speech by Andrea Dworkin, given more than 25 years ago. Those with delicate sensibilities shouldn’t click on the link. Anyone who does click and doesn’t think this speech is relevant to the post should reread Saccavadi’s story. It’s taken me some time to read through it myself. I’ve had to start and stop and restart again because it’s so hard for me to read.
If women are allowed to ordain fully as bhikkunis, if they are given the same opportunities and same status as men, what must the implication be for the position of women as a whole (laywomen as well as monastics) in relation to men? Isn’t that the underlying issue?
Thanks so much for this post.
I guess in mentioning this I was thinking of the stereotype, of which we have seen abundant examples on this blog, that bhikkhunis are arrogant, political, angry, demanding – in a word, feminists. I think this kind of argument is not merely ridiculous, but incredibly harmful on so many levels – as the talk by Andrea Dworkins makes more than clear. Actually, feminists have plenty to be angry about and their restraint is really remarkable – or not, if we think there’s no choice.
As for the choices of the nuns, I guess much of the choosing goes on before they come to ordain. One would imagine that women who are acutely and painfully conscious of the issues are unlikely to come anywhere near Theravada, or if they do, they would not be interested in monastic life. Nevertheless, despite this, there are kammic or other forces at work here, because in my experience a reasonable number of women who come for monastic life are, in fact, quite aware of feminist issues.
Once they ordain, they do have choices. For example, the siladhara of Amaravati have chosen to comply with the 5 points, rather than, say walk out, or protest publicly. Other nuns have made the choice to leave. In some countries, bhikkhunis have become enthusiastic advocates of women’s rights, such as Ven. Chao Hwei of Taiwan. The fact that in Theravada most bhikkhus have not supported bhikkhunis means that the bhikkhunis are largely independent and can speak for themselves. I’d like to see them speaking more, and one of the purposes of this blog has been to break down the patriarchal construct of unsayability around these issues.
I agree completely that rape and other violence against women is totally relevant to bhikkhuni ordination. Empowering women is the only way to stop rape, and in Buddhist cultures this will only happen when there are strong spiritual female leaders. The abuse that Saccavadi suffered, that was also suffered by the Thai nuns in 1928, and which is suffered by nuns and laywomen every day in temples, is a product of the patriarchy’s systematic stripping of the dignity of women. As moral exemplars, the Sangha should understand and expect that the lay community will observe this behaviour, follow a model that treats women as lesser, and the result will be domestic violence, rape, and abuse.
Any monk who benefits from this system and who does not use their position of authority to challenge it and change it must share the responsibility for this violence.
I’m very, very late to reply and I know the party has already moved elsewhere, but –
Thank you for taking the time to repy to my comment. I’m not sure how to address you, so I apologize for sidestepping etiquette here.
As for the choices of the nuns, I guess much of the choosing goes on before they come to ordain. One would imagine that women who are acutely and painfully conscious of the issues are unlikely to come anywhere near Theravada, or if they do, they would not be interested in monastic life. Nevertheless, despite this, there are kammic or other forces at work here, because in my experience a reasonable number of women who come for monastic life are, in fact, quite aware of feminist issues.
It seems that many nuns ordain at a very young age, ~20 yrs old. This is too young to have a full grasp of the effects of discrimination. Also, once they have committed themselves in this way and have this level of investment, disrobing seems an unlikely option unless they are forced to do so. It would be the same for any woman who has chosen a ‘career’ path that is male dominated/oriented. Once she’s put considerable time, effort, resources and study into pursuing it, she will tend to weather whatever discrimination is lobbed at her, however overt or subtle. Public protest, disobedience or complaint of discrimination will frequently come at a high cost, though, whether it be as marginalization or overt punishment (denial of resources, expulsion or physical violence). This is fundamental to how those in control maintain control. Men who violate this system on behalf of women will experience marginalization or punishment as well. There’s no need to educate you on this point.
As you’ve stated, the bhikkhunis do have choices – but they are extremely limited. They either accept marginalization or they disrobe.
What I’m getting at is this: I’m not sure that your reply really touches on what Dworkin was saying. Because women are by default of lower status in patriarchy, they have limited ability to make changes. “Empowering women” strikes me as an empty phrase. What does it mean?
…I was thinking of the stereotype, of which we have seen abundant examples on this blog, that bhikkhunis are arrogant, political, angry, demanding – in a word, feminists.
I think you forgot shrill, strident, hairy-legged and man hating. Heh.
Thanks for some relevant comments. You’re quite right that any kind of protest by nuns comes at a cost; one nun said to me ‘it’s like Agent Orange…’
re the age of women ordaining, in general, i wouldn’t know, but here at santi there’s a variation between 20-60, and I would imagine this is fairly normal. Many of the women here are very intelligent, conscious, and articulate – although this may be an exception…
But really it means going beyond patriarchy – as long as the women are seeking validation by looking to a patriarchal system things won’t really change. This, it seems to me, is one of the great grievances of WPP re. the bhikkhuni ordinations. We behaved as if the patriarchy did not rule our lives.
‘Empowering women’ – it’s not a slogan, it’s something we work for. It means listening, speaking to, participating with, treating as equals, taking seriously, encouraging towards positions of responsibility… All of which is actually happening, or at least starting, in many places….
Pardon my inexcusable omission.
I am so deeply saddened by this story; that such a beautiful and gifted monk could be so cruelly persecuted for her beliefs and love for Buddhism. What madness! I do sincerely hope Saccavadi continues to teach the dhamma in the US as she has so much to offer laypeople, regardless of whether she is wearing the external cloth or not.
“We have the hearts of lions and live the lives of clerks.” – George Monbiot –
Bravo to Saccavada and to all women and men of her ilk who show us that the Age of Heroism is yet living, prompting us to remember there is nothing staid about wayfaring this Noble Path.
Brave pioneers we must always be to walk it truly! And how grateful I am to the Buddha for revealing the possibility of a good life less ordinary.
So much of this unhappy tale has to do with what’s wrong with Burma! Take a look at the Buddhist Channel archives on the Saffron Revolution. Monks shot, beaten, arrested,disrobed, tortured and disappeared for chanting the Metta Sutta? Relief workers imprisoned after Nargis for making the rulers look bad? People jailed for talking about The Lady? Chin Christian children forcibly converted to Buddhism? Muslim Rohingyas so abused they flee to squalid camps in poverty-stricken Bangladesh? The Burmese military junta is an equal opportunity oppressor.
No doubt the brutality of their behaviour is influenced by the Burmese environment, but we should not ignore that it was the Sangha organization that was behind the treatment of Saccavadi, not the junta. The junta has survived by largely leaving Buddhism alone, as long as the monks don’t get political. The treatment of Saccavadi is essentially the same as how the Thai Sangha/government dealt with the bhikkhunis of 1928.
How does it advance understanding to compare the treatment of Ven. Saccavadi in Burma to the Thai government’s treatment of bhikkhunis of 1928?
You do need to inform yourself about the situation in Burma before you accuse them and excuse the junta of any injustice. For a discussion of imprisoned monks please read the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners Burma report at
and for some insight into the recent Saffron Revolution please read Dr. Ingrid Jordt’s discussion at
If you think that the Burmese Sangha organization is just a normal Sangha organization you are sadly mistaken. Suppression and manipulation of Buddhism did not begin with the junta. Ne Win, who assumed power in the coup of 1962, recognized early on that Buddhism, because of its independent nature and because of Burmese monks’ traditional involvement in the country’s affairs, was a grave threat to his dictatorial rule.
In 1965, when monks refused the government’s attempt to gain control over the Sangha at Hmawbi, Ne Win arrested more than seven hundred monks. Some of these were shamefully abused and imprisoned.
In the demonstrations which erupted in Rangoon when the military blocked a proper funeral for U Thant (Secretary-General of the United Nations) in 1974, several monks were bayonetted and shot, and six hundred more arrested.
In 1976, Ne Win launched a media campaign against Ven. U La Ba, a brave and persistent critic of the military government. The trumped-up charges, including murder and cannibalism, were obviously meant to shock the populace and to defame the Sangha.
In 1978, many more monks and novices were arrested, disrobed, and imprisoned. Some were even sent as porters to the front line of the civil war. Valuable monasteries were closed and their property seized by the government. That same year, Ven. U Nayaka, a senior and respected monk, died in jail after being brutally tortured.
During Ne Win’s twenty-five year reign, military propaganda became increasingly strident, relentlessly lauding the military and claiming that soldiers sacrificed everything for the country while monks were shameless parasites.
In 1988, monks, advocating non-violence and peaceful protest, were again at the forefront of the massive demonstrations for democracy . According to authoritative estimates, more than 10,000 people, including 600 monks, were killed by the army during August and September. In many cases, soldiers stripped dead monks of their robes and secretly disposed of the bodies. Following the coup by Gen. Saw Maung on September 18, when the military junta was established, hundreds of monks fled to the jungle along the borders.
Any monk who had been involved in the demonstrations, but who remained in Burma, was subject to surveillance, harassment, and arrest. A young monk in Mandalay, Ven. U Koweinda was arrested in June 1989 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 1990, his sentence was extended to 15 years because he was suspected of being the leader of a riot which had broken out in Mandalay Prison. At some point he was transferred to Katha Prison in Sagaing Division. (The junta often moves prisoners around like this to prevent their being traced.) All Burma Young Monks’ Union, an association of monks who have fled Burma, confirmed that Ven. U Koweinda died there in October 1994. Since he was only in his thirties, it is suspected that he died from torture and maltreatment.
In July 1989, a senior monk in Mandalay, Ven. U Kawainda, who had been one of the leading advocates for human rights in 1988, was also arrested. The junta accused him of being a member of the Burmese Communist Party, but he persistently denied the accusation. On September 9, 1991, BBC reported that this monk had been tortured to death.
On July 6, 1989, the army committed the unprecedented desecration of setting up barricades on the platform of sacred Shwedagon Pagoda and searching all pilgrims. In an incident provoked by the soldiers, eleven monks and seventeen students were killed. Subsequently, the pagoda was closed for five days.
On August 8, 1990, in commemoration of the second anniversary of the democracy uprising, more than 7,000 monks and novices walked through the streets of Mandalay, solemnly and peacefully accepting alms from the people. Soldiers confronted the monks and opened fire, killing two monks and two students and wounding seventeen others. One novice disappeared.
Following this massacre, the Monks’ Union (Sangha Sammagi) of Mandalay, led by Ven. U Yewata, declared pattam nikkujjana kamma, “overturning the bowl,” against the military. This refusal to accept alms is used as a rebuke to laypeople. According to vinaya, the rules of conduct for Buddhist monks, a layperson who has committed any of eight offenses should be ostracized. These eight are: striving for that which is not gain, striving for that which is not benefit, acting against a monastery, vilifying and making insidious comparisons about monks, inciting dissension among monks, defaming the Buddha, defaming the Dhamma, and defaming the Sangha, the order of monks. If a layman acts in any of these ways, the Sangha should refuse all contact with him.
This powerful religious boycott, which began in Mandalay spread like wildfire across Burma, causing alarm and trauma to the ruling military junta. By October, the religious sanctions against the military families had reached Rangoon. Throughout the country, monks were refusing alms from military personnel and their families and refusing to attend religious services organized by SLORC. Although the purpose of the boycott was compassionate to help the evil doers to repent of their deeds, to forsake their wrong ways, and to return to the true path the military leaders did not accept the reproach. Saw Maung, Chairman of SLORC, and Tun Kyi, Mandalay Division Commander, declared that their actions were completely justified and that they were not afraid of going to hell.
The junta retaliated against the monks’ boycott by staging a massive clampdown on the Sangha. Monasteries were surrounded by armed troops, and monks were trapped inside. Electricity, water, and communication lines were cut, and monks were prevented from going on their daily alms rounds. After maintaining the blockade for one week, armed troops entered the monasteries and arrested the leaders. People living near some of the monasteries were also forced to move, and their homes were destroyed. More than 350 monasteries were raided, and more than 3,000 monks and novices were arrested. Twenty monasteries were seized and expropriated.
On October 19, Ven. U Yewata himself was arrested. Most monks were accused of possessing anti-SLORC literature, including articles by the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s party which had won the election in May. Three young monks were arrested for allegedly having written inflammatory poems in their diaries and notebooks. In a crude attempt to smear the Sangha Sammagi movement, some monks were even charged with gambling, illegal possession of jade or heroin, and rape. When Khin Nyunt, the head of Military Intelligence, explained these arrests on State radio, however, he only accused the Mandalay monks of working with the defunct Communist Party of Burma.
On October 20, a decree was passed (Order 6/90) banning all independent Sangha organizations, historically important agents of political change in Burma. Another decree (Order 7/90), passed the following day, authorized army commanders to bring monks before military tribunals for “activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism.” These tribunals, whose procedures fall far short of international standards on fair trials, can impose punishments ranging from three years’ imprisonment to death.
In the junta’s repression following the monks’ boycott in 1990, one of those arrested was Ven. U Thu Mingala. This highly respected monk, abbot of one of the monasteries at Kaba Aye in Rangoon, is one of only five monks in modern Burma to have memorized the entire Buddhist canon. After his arrest, he was harshly treated and sent into internal exile in Kachin State.
Although he was not allowed to wear his monk’s robes during his imprisonment, he continued to observe vinaya as far as possible. When he was finally released and returned to Rangoon in 1995, he resumed wearing his robes with no loss of seniority.
Another senior monk, Ven. Jotika, a professor at the Sangha University in Rangoon, who was more than 70 years old, was also arrested after the boycott. Although he was suffering from intestinal cancer, he was denied medical treatment and shackled to his bed, where he died in December 1992.
We cannot estimate how many other monks and novices have been similarly arrested, disrobed, imprisoned, or tortured.
Of course the treatment of Ven. Saccavadi was appalling! The Burmese junta’s treatment of the country’s citizens, the ethnic and religious minorities, the youth, the elderly, the victims of Nargis, its opposition, and its monastics is appalling. I think its fair to say that there is nothing normal about the situation in Burma, which makes it considerably different from its neighbor, Thailand. It is wrong to condemn the Burmese Sangha for the actions of “the Sangha organization that was behind the treatment of Saccavadi.” Brave members of the Sangha have dared to overturn the almsbowl and suffer the consequences.
Thanks so much for this detailed information on the situation in Myanmar – you’re obviously well informed so it’s great to learn more about this from you. I’ve never been to Myanmar myself, but i have many friends who have been there to practice and ordain, and I know a number of Burmese monks. We’ve talked about the issues, and i know that even in Australia they are reluctant to speak out about the situation, since the government can always find their families. Recently the Burmese monks in Australia have organized themselves as an association, and I have visited a local Burmese monastery to learn about this and to offer the support of the Australian Sangha Association. But the situation is so dire that it’s hard to envisage any progress.
Please don’t misunderstand my posts. i have never tried to ‘excuse the junta of any injustice’. Nor have I ‘condemned the Burmese Sangha’. In the brief comment that i am responding to, i made three statements:
In this I was relying on the testimony of Saccavadi herself. She stated that it was “the SSNC decided that it was a crime for a female to be ordained as a bhikkhuni… I was brought before the 47 monks of the SSNC. The monks presented me with a document that had four requests written upon it…” Nowhere in her account is there any suggestion that the junta was behind this persecution. Perhaps this is wrong. Perhaps the junta was in fact behind the acts of the SSNC. But I have no information that this was the case, so I assume that the first person account that I have is reliable.
In your post you give us many sad and graphic examples of what happens when the monks do get political. The Burmese junta is thouroughly evil and perhaps the worst government on this planet today. But the fact remains that there are thousands of monasteries in Burma, hundreds of thousands of monks, and as long as they stay completely away from politics, the junta leaves them alone.
No government could survive in Burma without the at least tacit acceptance of the Sangha, and so as you have shown, ensuring the compliance of the Sangha has been one of their primary agendas. Now, I would never be critical of monks who just go along with the system, given the brutality of the junta’s suppression of resistance. Obviously, like most people overseas, I sympathize with and greatly admire the courage of those monks who have spoken out. But what would I do if i was Burmese? Would I have the courage to speak out? I really can’t say.
Be that as it may, for the most part the Burmese Sangha gets on with its Sangha business, running monasteries, doing education, and so on, and for the most part the government watches them closely and lets them proceed. Therefore, in the case of Saccavadi, i do not assume without evidence that the junta was behind this persecution.
Let me list the similarities:
1. Progressive and dedicated women ordain as bhikkhunis.
2. They are arrested at the instigation of the national Sangha authorities.
3. On highly dubious legal grounds they are incarcerated.
4. The bhikkhunis disrobe; in the Thai case two of them were released still in robes, one of whom was later abducted.
5. There is no significant protest or criticism of this act by the remainder of the Sangha. Nor has the Sangha authority apologized for its acts. Rather, the Sangha uncritically obeys the rules regarding bhikkhunis that have been formulated by the same authorities who have acted in this way.
i think these are essential parallels. What they tell us is that the opposition to bhikkhuni ordination by Sangha authorities will not always restrict itself to a polite debate, but they will not flinch at such abuses of power to maintain the status quo. If this happened once, and there was later an apology, then we could explain it away as an aberration. But the fact that such similar patterns have occurred tells us that there is more to it than this. You emphasize the differnce between the two countries; but for me this is precisely why the similarity of the two cases is so striking. Nearly a century apart, under very different social and political conditions, the central Sangha authorities react to bhikkhuni ordination in very similar ways.
As i have said many times, the current Thai Sangha administration has not shown itself to be so strongly opposed to bhikkhuni ordination, and I believe that they would prefer just to sit by and watch events. And as I also stated, the acts of the SSNC in Burma don’t represent the Sangha as a whole, as i know several Burmese bhikkhus who are very supportive of bhikkhunis. I would like to think that the treatment of Saccavadi was the fault of the junta, but I simply cannot see any evidence that this was the case.
You have inspired me (well, it started with the ordination fuss) to explore more deeply the issue of secular human rights and protecting the Sasana – there is much out there – and cerainly HHDL and TNH have spoken about it…I feel it is highly relevant in our case – the dogmatics suggesting that rights have no place – but Burma, Vietnam, Tibet – our Bhikkhuni dilemma – and the wisdom of elders from all faiths suggest otherwise.
(Well, perhaps a good place to start is King Ashoka.)
Ajahn S. do you have any suggestions? (sorry sorry I may have missed a whole chapter on the blogs on this)
Honestly. The whole business has turned a big part of me completely away from organized religion. In fact, I was never drawn to organized religion until I heard my first Dhamma talk. And I did not realize that I was part of an organized religion, really, until 7 years later, in the events of the last few months.
I am not turning away from the Buddha’s teaching, but I think I am readjusting to my pre-Buddhist understanding of Triple Gem – which is a Sangha much bigger and wider than the one I shrunk it to, and a Dhamma that encompasses more than what was bound in the precious Tipitaka. I really struggle with the monastic ideal now- at the very least – I think now that monastic life that is not engaged for at least part of the time in very real worldly challenges simply cannot lead to the direct experience of the teachings…I am so struck by the deep delusions that remain and get reinforced within monastic communities, pardon me, Venerable Sir! Respectfully, I think you understand what I am experiencing…
What Bikkhu Bodhi said is so very true. It leads to a deep distrust. And trying to look at the bright side, perhaps a deeper discernment…
I’ve had a lot to do with monasteries of two Buddhist traditions in the last year, and I am afraid I agree with you.
I hope that both lay and monastic can work together to correct the situation. If not, then a well-lived lay practitioner’s life is a good one for the individual and for everyone else.
This is a sad account and sadder is the way the Burmese monks in SSNC behaved. Without doubt, age-old sexism refuses to fade away. Maybe there is some truth to the Adam & Eve story. How would a man treat a piece of spare rib?
Bhikkhus, for all the years of learning and training in the Middle Way cannot shed their male ego. A leopard cannot change its spots simply by wearing the saffron robe. I always wonder what lies truly beneath the robes.
With prejudice, objection and dependency on lay political masters by the Burmese Sangha or specifically by the SSNC, ex-bhikkhuni Saccavadi should have known better not to return to Burma as a bhikkhuni. Where is the wisdom? Why didn’t she disrobe before returning to see her father? Was it attachment? Why disrobed in 2008? Was it disillusion or burnout?
I see the Sangha no differently from the lay except for the robe. The same sexism, ego, attachment to traditions, ignorance that afflicts society at large also afflicts the community of monks.
Rules are man made. They can also be man break. How the SSNC consider it was a crime for female to be ordained as a bhikkhuni beats me! What harm or damage has been caused? Aah, it is their monkhood or shall I say their manhood?
You said: “How would a man treat a piece of spare rib?”
I love this witty simile of yours. Thank you so much for making me laugh, but at the same time for making me see things from another perspective.
You said: “A leopard cannot change its spots simply by wearing the saffron robe”
I totally agree with your wisdom here.
Metta from a spare rib 🙂
what a shocking story! Thank you again for all your good work in spreading the truth about oppression Ven Sujato
A tragic story of discrimination and hatred. I have always had an aversion to organised religion as the first thing people seem to do is stop thinking for themselves and adopt a mob mentality and in turn are very easily led.
The more that I read specially comments made in this Blog I am convinced that Theravada Buddhism as practiced in SE Asia will never accept equal rights for women. Its why I I find it very difficult to accept the Buddhist institutions that arise from those countries I cannot accept their values. They are like cracked diamonds for if one cannot accept that men and woman or all beings for that matter are not equal then how can one accept the Dharna?
I am grateful though that they have kept the Buddhas teachings alive.
Saccavadi is now free of one desire at least and that is to be a Monk in the Theradava tradition…and i am assuming she has also realised that not being a monk does not preclude her from following the Dharma and becoming enlightened. Actually she is free to follow the very rich teachings of all Buddhist tradition without a narrow allegiance to one. She is most likely closer to being free than she ever was.
I also read the comment by Visakha Kawasaki and am more than a little surprised that he cannot see the anomaly here. I have no doubt that the Sangha in Burma has been extremely courageous and suffered terrible treatment…and yet that same group was prepared to meet out similar treatment to a woman who had the temerity to want to be a monk!!!
What is it with Humans …….people who have suffered terrible treatment from others in turn seem to have little concern in visiting the same treatment on other innocents? …Israels treatment of the Palestinians is a good example as is Saccavadi’s story.
Sujato wrote — “I think we just shouldn’t talk to the fundamentalists. If anyone is engaging in ‘religious pornography’, trying to force on you their own narrow-minded, uncompassionate, literal dogmas, don’t grant them the dignity of a reasonable response.”
Agreed — my first response is to think the opposite : “of course we should engage them in discussion, and be reasonable together”, but my experiences with fundamentalists of all three Judaeo Xtian ( I include Islamic in that ) inclinations, is that such dialogue is pointless. What I also find deeply offensive is how much real, visceral,extreme violence and utterly nonspiritual lack of compassion and lack of empathy is implicitly included in their world view. There is a real hardness about Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists that accepts hurting others quite openly and easily. I find that unacceptable.
The highly regarded scholar of fascism, Zeev Sternhell advises us and warns us that there is no real dialogue possible with fascists, how ever much we may prefer to ‘reason things over with them.’
Regrettable, because I’d much prefer to try and see these peoples’ points of view, and engage in respectful discussion, but experience tells me that it isn’t possible.
I don’t know if Saccavadi is reading any of this… If she is… Well I just want her to know that she is a pioneering heroine and I will think of her with love and respect. May she well, happy, strong and loved.
I think Dr. Jordt’s analysis (RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Winter 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3) to which I tried but failed to provide a link, is extremely useful for understanding why what happened to Ven. Saccavadi when she returned to Burma is entirely the fault of the junta. In fact, it isn’t too much to say that there aren’t any other actors in Burma. What happens happens because of the junta.
I think that you misunderstand the conditions in the country.Perhaps you are using the wrong yardsticks for human rights in Burma by focusing on the bhikkhuni issue? (Remember that a great Burmese monk first made the case for Bhikkhuni Ordination in modern times). Also, I think you are misreading what it means to be political and non-political in such a context.
Turning Over the Bowl in Burma
by Ingrid Jordt
In late August, a series of widespread and spontaneous protests erupted in response to an unannounced removal of fuel subsidies by Burma’s ruling military regime. But prospects for a large anti-regime movement led by pro-democracy activists soon seemed to fizzle. As the AP reported on August 26, “A week of protests over fuel price hikes present no immediate threat to Burma’s military rulers because very few people joined the demonstrations and the key organisers were swiftly detained, analysts said Sunday.”
Then, on September 5, some 300 monks in the central city of Pakokku joined the protests. Chanting universal loving-kindness to signal their wish that all beings be free from suffering, the monks implored the military to reinstate the subsidies out of compassion for the people.
The monks’ efforts at persuasion were met with a brutal crackdown by police, soldiers, and plain-clothed thugs. This treatment of the most revered members of society shocked and horrified the public and led to an escalation of the protests. In the third week of September, some 20,000 monks walked through the streets of Yangon with their alms bowls overturned. A hundred thousand people marched behind them.
At the height of the protests, I was contacted by Seth Mydans, the Southeast Asia correspondent for the New York Times. For 20 years, I have studied the relationship between religion and politics in Burma. Mydans said he was preparing a Week in Review article about “militant monks,” and he wanted some quotes from me on the subject.
“Well,” I said, “you’ve got it all wrong.”
I told Mydans that if he did write up the protest as a story of militant monks, he would be endangering the movement and putting the monks at risk. That was because “militancy” contradicts Burmese society’s dominant view of the role monks can take vis-à-vis worldly society. It would also have been inaccurate reporting. The protests were almost uniformly peaceable.
After listening to me and interviewing one or two other experts on the subject, Mydans wrote an article that, I believe, accurately conveyed the character of the monks’ protest. It began:
“As they marched through the streets of Burma’s cities last week leading the biggest antigovernment protests in two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.
“It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation. The monks were refusing to receive alms from the military rulers and their families—effectively excommunicating them from the religion that is at the core of Burmese culture.
“That gesture is a key to understanding the power of the rebellion that shook Myanmar last week.”
In 1997, when the New York Times immediately went along with the regime’s renaming of Burma as Myanmar, the country’s leaders gloated that their legitimacy had been recognized by the international media. Speaking with Mydans, I had worried that if the Times described the monks as militant, it would make it easier for the regime to identify the protesters as “bogus monks,” who could then be forcibly disrobed and punished.
Of course, the regime was intent on this course of action in any case. But the monks were in all likelihood able to conduct their marches through much of September without military suppression because they were widely recognized as acting in accordance with their prerogative as the religious authorities of the land. This form of public moralizing without direct engagement in politics must be understood if one is to make sense of the monks’ involvement in the protests.
The monks’ “anti-political” engagement derives from two states of affairs in Burma, one relatively recent and the other ancient.
First, widespread antipathy toward the military regime has existed since the violent suppression of student protests in August 1988. A landslide election in favor of National Democratic League leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in 1990 was disregarded by the regime, and Ms. Suu Kyi has spent most of the intervening years under house arrest.
Since then, there have been no formal power-sharing institutions apart from the military, and political activism of any kind is quickly found out by spies and suppressed. It has been illegal for more than five people to gather in one place. Under the circumstances, those who wish to stage political resistance have no choice but to do so by veiled means and away from the ubiquitous surveillance of the regime.
It would take a book to give a proper account of this resistance. The forms of it that I have observed in Burma over the past two decades have all mirrored the structure of the present uprising, on a much smaller scale. All have taken place in or through the religious sphere.
Burmese people wear amulets of monks who are famous both for their spirituality and their refusal to be co-opted by the regime. They make pilgrimages to such monks, spread rumors of supernatural retribution against the regime (such as the rumor that their sacred white elephant had committed suicide), and donate property to monks and monasteries to avoid nationalization (since the government does not touch or tax various categories of sacred property). In these and other ways do they surreptitiously but unmistakably escape from and protest the controlling activities of the regime.
It is equally important to recognize that religious anti-politics is also rooted in the Vinaya, or monastic code of conduct, which seeks to enforce the vows of renunciation taken by monks by explicitly prohibiting them from engaging in worldly affairs. Contravention of the Vinaya is grounds for disrobing, traditionally a voluntary act taken by the monk himself in cognizance of his violation. Marching in a political rally would certainly qualify as a violation of the prohibition.
One exception is allowed, however. This can occur when some person or persons are seen as acting in ways that threaten the Sasana—the teachings of the Buddha, or, for our purposes, the Buddhist religion. In such a case case, the Sangha (order of monks) is permitted to issue what is regarded as the ultimate moral rebuke: refusing to accept donations. The act is known in the Pali language as “patam nikkujjana kamma”—turning over the bowl.
To refuse to accept someone’s donation is to deny that person the opportunity to earn merit. Merit is a moral condition that produces real world power and felicitous circumstances in one’s future life.
When the Sangha formally announced on September 18 that it was denying the military the opportunity to earn such merit, it was doing something much more important than intimating the public’s desire for regime change to democratic rule. By refusing to function as the “merit fields” in which the military can sow their future prosperity, the monks effectively removed the spiritual condition sustaining the regime’s power. That was the meaning of their parading with upturned bowls.
The monks’ boycott extended to all donations from the military regime’s leaders, their families and close associates. To combat this, the military at one point went so far as to bar regular citizens from offering to the monks, in order to force them to accept military donations. Yet even in the face of this, many monasteries refused the donations, and rice sacks lay unopened on the monastery grounds. Monks who were taken to prison also refused to accept alms from the military, many of them going on hunger strikes.
The moral force of such refusal was evident in 1990, when there was a smaller movement of turning over the bowl. Then, military wives refused to cook for their husbands until they apologized to the Sangha, since their own merit fields were jeopardized.
Indeed, there have been instances of this kind of protest throughout Burmese history, and in many cases the results have been momentous. What is involved is the classical moral dialectic between Sangha and State. The Sangha has the role of admonishing rulers to conform to the law of dhamma, the moral causal law of justice. The rulers for their part see to it that members of the Sangha do not stray from their own code of conduct.
Thus, on September 21, the Pokokku monks issued a statement (reported from Bangkok by the Inter Press Service) that declared:
“The violent, mean, cruel, ruthless, pitiless kings—the great thieves who live by stealing from the national treasury—have killed a monk at Pakokku, and also arrested reverend clergymen by trussing them up with rope. They beat and tortured, verbally abused and threatened them. The clergy boycotts the violent, mean, cruel, ruthless, pitiless kings….The clergy hereby also refuses donations and preaching.”
The statement was a significant rebuke, but remained highly moral and anti-political. The language of kingship and refusal of donations remained within the traditional bounds available to the Sangha in desperate times.
But even as the monks undertook their anti-political rebuke of the regime, so the regime was bound to reply according to the same language—by interpreting the monks’ actions as being “against the religion” by virtue of the fact that, according to the regime, they had stepped outside of their role as renunciates.
On October 6, the junta’s propaganda newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, stated that the monks’ actions were “in total disregard of the Sasana and the Buddha’s teachings, and they attempted to tarnish the image of Buddha’s Sasana and sow discord between the government and the people. As a result, the Sasana as well as the country was affected.”
The New Light reported that, in line with the Vinaya’s proscription of political activism among the clergy, the military had announced that “monks and nuns taken in the raids were defrocked before interrogation and those found to not have participated in the demonstrations were reordained and sent back to their monasteries.”
According to the newspaper, “The handling of the situation during the violent protests and measures taken by officials for purification of the Sasana amounts to serving the interest of the Sasana. Officials are to make continued efforts for perpetuation, purification and propagation of the Sasana.”
In fact, some monks—younger ones in particular—did made gestures and statements in the language of the democracy movement. It was this more expressly political position that the Western media has emphasized.
On October 24, for example, Agence France-Presse reported, “Myanmar has been in the world spotlight since pro-democracy protests spearheaded by the country’s revered Buddhist monks were violently put down by the regime last month.” And on December 7, AP spoke of “[m]ounting pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks.”
Only one journalist, Dinah Gardner, captured the anti-politics story, in a November 10 article in Asia Times Online:
“The real tragedy was the politicization of the protests. The monks first marched only to plead with the government to do something about the crippling poverty….Matters started to go awry, say observers, when the main opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), jumped on board and added their call for democracy. The order to start shooting would never have been given if the demonstrations had not been sabotaged.
“‘The monks would be marching and the NLD would run ahead, parting the crowds and directing the monks like traffic,’ remembers one Yangon-based expatriate. ‘At one point they came to a junction and waved the monks towards the right-side route, but the lead monks choose the left path. That was telling.’
“The protests could have gone on for much longer if the monks had been in charge, says another NGO worker. ‘I think it’s really a pity that the protests didn’t just stick with the monks because what would the government have done if the monks peacefully walked on and on and on? It would be very difficult for them to start shooting. They would have had to tolerate it for a longer time and then you would have started this culture of demonstrations.’
“Even activists agree that the bulk of Myanmar’s citizens just want a better life. ‘Most people don’t know much about democracy,’ said a Yangon-based former political prisoner. ‘They just want enough money to feed their family.’”
The two protest positions—the anti-political turning over of the bowl and the pro-democracy activism—are, in fact, not easy to disengage. For the media, the challenge of making sense of the Burmese religio-political landscape is hugely complicated by lack of physical access.
Even so, the Internet has opened up possibilities for accessing internal reports and interpretations in an entirely new way. Scholars of Burma have themselves relied much more on these sources than on newspapers to keep abreast of the developments on the ground.
In addition, the thriving pro-democracy activist movement outside the country, which includes many expatriate Burmese, has contributed much to shaping the understandings on the ground in Burma. Activists have fastened on to the voices of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, the most explicitly pro-democracy group within the Sangha.
As in any political debate, there are bitter divisions outside the country over the question of how to bring about regime change in Burma. These have centered on the question of the usefulness of sanctions and, more fundamentally, the question of the relevance of the notion of democracy itself in a country where exposure to its principles has been rudimentary at best.
The most widely understood moral principles of fair and just governance still derive from Buddhist models. The mass protests by monks stemmed specifically from the regime’s refusal to be morally corrected by the Sangha and to amend its behavior in accordance with the monks’ rebuke.
The regime’s violent reaction to the monks’ action suggests that there can be no return to status quo ante, and that the ’07 protest therefore represents the beginning of the end for the regime. At this writing, although the events in Burma have stopped being widely reported on, the monks have continued their boycott.
The laity are said to be attending, and passing around VCDs of, monks’ lectures that are bold in their discussions about bad kings and about the regime’s planting of bogus monks into the Sangha. The best hope for regime change may continue to lie, as hope for reform always has in Burma, with the Sangha’s moral authority.
I hadn’t fully realised how the dynamics of the merit system work. It seems to me that it has the same potential for corruption that the Roman Christian system of indulgences has. This relies on the Roman idea of Purgatory (which doesn’t exist in other Christian traditions) which is a place where the soul is supposed to spend time after death if the person has unconfessed sins left, but not bad enough to put them in Hell forever. It’s supposed to be unpleasant but not as bad as Hell, and time spent there is proportionate to the seriousness of the unconfessed sins. Indulgences are tickets that give you “time off” Purgatory and they are actually measured in weeks and can go up to a full pardon.
You can get an indulgence by saying certain prayers at certain times or, historically, by paying money. This is how the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was financed and it was one of the main corruptions in the Roman Church that moved Luther to start what became the Protestant Reformation.
It seems to me that the merit system can have the same dynamic – the idea of buying a better or less bad future life by paying for it now with money or goods. A corrupt monk could use this as a free meal ticket for just wearing a robe and not practicing, and it lets a donor think that they are buying a happy future existence without the need to reflect on their current conduct. They could ignore the precepts altogether and still feel safe about their future life. This is clearly what the members of the junta thought and as the piece above says, the system provided a “spiritual condition sustaining the regime’s power”. It also removes the important dynamic of giving to give, rather than to get.
Clearly the monks concerned turned this round and used it to put pressure on the junta, who obviously took it seriously, but there were also obviously limits to how seriously since they had no compunction in arresting, imprisoning and beating up monks. Interesting cognitive dissonance there.
Having grown up in the Roman Christian tradition I am used to corruption and twisted power dynamics in religion. I had no idea that the same dynamics operate in a part of the Buddhist tradition and I have to admit that I am shocked. Perhaps this is just a dynamic that can happen in all traditions that have a priesthood supported by the laity which claims to confer access to a better future life (I am aware that the latter would not apply to other Buddhist traditions or even other parts of the Theravada).
There is another striking parallel. In the RC tradition, there was a long controversy about whether the efficacy of the Holy Communion – which was of course necessary to get you into heaven – depended on the virtue of the priest. Many of the followers knew that their priests were corrupt, and they were afraid that the wafer wouldn’t work. After long deliberations, the Church decided that the authority was passed down through the institution of the Church herself, and that the virtue of the individual priest was irrelevant. This is a very pragmatic solution, for the people have to have access to salvation, and good priests have always been hard to find.
Exactly the same mechanism is found in Buddhist discussions on merit. The Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta says:
Venerable Analayo has discussed this point in his (as yet unpublished) comparative study of the Majjhima.
The Buddha provided a remedy for monks to apply when lay people harm the Sangha, viz. overturning the bowl. That is a proper Sanghakamma.
Quite honestly, I can’t imagine what you mean when you say that monks can and should stay away from politics in Burma or on what evidence you can claim that if they do, the junta will leave them alone.
The military amounts to an occupying army in its own land. The Sangha is clearly a rival in sheer numbers. If the people are starving the monks go hungry too. The army doesn’t. They take whatever they want. Given the violence done to the Sangha in 1988, 1990, and the most recent Saffron Revolution, given the spies in the monasteries, the appropriation of monastery property, the junta complete controls over ID cards, travel, monastery stays, study, passports, family members, members of the Sangha are pretty much helpless to do anything the junta doesn’t like.
Personally I would be very critical of monks who endorse the junta and feel very sorry for those who just go along with the system. For those of us outside Burma to give tacit approval to the junta and to criticize those members of the Sangha who dare to stand up for what is right as “political” seems to be to be a grave fault.
If you criticize those who say they sympathize with Bhikkhuni Ordination but do nothing about it, shouldn’t you also do more than just sympathize with and greatly admire the courage of those monks who have spoken out and not charge them with being “political”?
As for the junta leaving the Sangha alone, I can only say that that’s what I’ve heard from all my friends who have lived in Burmese monasteries. I know many people who have gone there, lived for extended periods of time, and have simply got on with their study and/or practice. Of course the junta is awful and intrusive, but as I have said, all my sources tell me that for the most part they are happy to support Buddhism, as long as it stays completely away from politics.
I don’t think it’s at all a criticism to say that some monks are political, especially in such a situation. On the contrary, i think it’s an incredibly brave and compassionate thing, and I respect that fact that I, in my comfortable first-world country, have the luxury of not having to make such difficult choices. I would like to imagine that if i were there i too would be one of the ‘political’ monks, but I really don’t know if i have the courage. i also cannot criticize the ‘non-political’ monks, as they have to make their lives in such a terrible situation.
As for doing something about it, I do what I can. As I mentioned previously, i have extended the active co-operation of the ASA for helping Burmese monastics; as part of the ASA we have supported visa applications, including one recent application from a Burmese Karen refugee monk; I have also helped support charity work in Myanmar, and so on. These are only tiny things, and I would love to be able to do more. If you’ve got any ideas, please let me know.
Alan Senauke’s Clear View Project is a good way to help Buremse monks and nuns through their “Adopt a Monk” project.
It’s a good program —
• Contact Clear View Project to choose a monk or nun.
• Send regular letters on his/her behalf to the United Nations, Burmese Generals, & US government.
• Send funds to buy more food & medicine for that monk. (details follow)
• Hold monthly meditations at your center or public vigils in honor of the monk or all imprisoned monastics.
• Send loving kindness to the monks & nuns, their families and the Burmese generals.
Contact Margaret Howe at Clear View Project:
telephone 707-360-8452 707-360-8452