On March 28th there was a siladhara ordination at Amaravati, the first since the Perth bhikkhuni ordination of October 2009. Two female anagarikas made the commitment to go forth out of faith in the Triple Gem. Of course, the joy with which I would like to greet this news is clouded by the circumstances which the Amaravati circle of Sangha has created for women monastics.
This was starkly highlighted in the ceremony, when, to the surprise of everyone present, including the candidates, Ajahn Sumedho read out the Five Points at the end of the procedure. The new nuns were asked to agree to abide by these rules.
How the new nuns felt about this we can only imagine. Was there joy? Was there inspiration? Did they feel, in their hearts, that they would uphold these rules like a beautiful young man or woman would wear a garland of flowers? Or was there confusion, doubt, trepidation?
The Five Points are, in several respects, similar to the traditional 8 garudhammas. But in the Pali ordination procedure for bhikkhunis, the 8 garudhammas are not mentioned in the ordination ceremony. Nor are they recited in the patimokkha. In fact, as I believe the historical situation makes clear, the garudhammas were imposed by the monks on the nuns, for exactly the same reasons as the Five Points: to control the nuns.
So in the Amaravati circle, those rules or principles from the Vinaya or elsewhere that can be used to subordinate women are emphasized and insisted on, while those principles that lead to fairness and compassion are sidelined and marginalized.
In his public talks criticizing the nuns, Ajahn Sumedho has strongly stated that as renunciates we have no rights. Some people may take this as a profound statement on letting go, but for me it was a scary opening into totalitarianism.
Ajahn Sumedho calls these the five ‘points of clarification’. And that is very true. His creation and subsequent insistence on the Five Points make it abundantly clear that when he says we have no rights, he really means it.
Ajahn Sumedho is profoundly attached to his experience as a young monk in north-east Thailand in the 60’s annd 70’s. From his experiences there he has created a form of practice that has become one of the strongest and most relevant forces in modern Buddhism. This is a testament to his own spiritual development as well as to the flexibility and authenticity of the forms he learnt in the north-east Forest Tradition.
And yet this current development shows that there is a fundamental inability to move on from that. Certain things may change or adjust in certain ways, but some things are rock solid immovable. In this debate on the role of women, Ajahn Sumedho reveals that, for him, his experiences as a young monk in Thailand override the Dhamma-Vinaya, and they override the noblest expressions of human ethics as widely accepted in the world.
There are many who, like Ajahn Sumedho, criticize the bhikkhuni movement because it is seen as a western or modern inspired movement for ‘equal rights’, rather than from a Buddhist perspective of seeking liberation. This is wrong-headed historically, since of course it is the bhikkhunis, not the siladharas or mae chis, who form part of the Buddha’s original community.
More importantly, it is wrong-headed morally. The Vinaya itself, and the traditional interpreters of the Vinaya, clearly acknowledge that ethical rules are of two types. There are those that are intrinsically wrong, like killing. And there are those that are simply worldly conventions, such as customs of bowing and respect. The Vinaya is concerned with both of these, and the Buddha constantly responded in a positive way when reasonable criticisms were made, especially by lay people.
The doctrine of rights was formed and is sustained by one overriding consideration: to prevent the powerless from being exploited by the powerful. Those in power will always be tempted to abuse that power, and limits need to be set on this. That is what human rights are. If you want to see where religion goes when those in power are considered above the constraints of conventional morality, just look at what is happening in the Roman church today.
So when modern society, including countries like Thailand, decide to adopt the principle that men and women should be treated equally, this is in response to the very apparent situation that men have power, and women suffer because of this. Balance is needed. And this dynamic is just as apparent in the Sangha as outside it.
The widespread agreement and adoption by peoples all over the world of similar charters of human rights shows that, when it comes to the important things, the noblest values of humanity are pretty much the same wherever you are.
This is what humanity wants: a world of fairness, balance, and equality. It is a dream, a vision for the future that we dare long for, despite all our human failings. And, as humans who happen to follow the Buddhist path, we would love to look up to our monastic Sangha, to see them as exemplars of where we should be heading.
When the storm over bhikkhuni ordination broke in late 2009, it did not take long for the voices of the people to make themselves heard. Compare what happened when two quite different petitions were made.
The petition in support of bhikkhunis and against the five points was initiated, developed, and carried through by lay people. Nearly 3000 names were collected. It was delivered in a respectful manner to a key meeting of the senior Sangha, calling for dialogue and a movement towards positive change. It was summarily ignored. As we see now, Ajahn Sumedho is leading his Sangha in a way directly opposite to what the people wanted.
The petition to have Ajahn Brahm expelled was initiated by monks, who telephoned from Thailand to agitate the Perth Thai community. It was not a call for dialogue or positive change, but for an exertion of power. While doing this in secret, they publicly denied having any influence over the Perth lay community. A very few of the Thai lay supporters tried to gather signatures, but it was a failure. The result was that the Thai community of Perth, of their own volition, decided to hold a fund-raiser to show their support for Ajahn Brahm, which was a great success.
If all this is true, then why on earth does anyone still want to take siladhara ordination? For me the answer is obvious: charisma. Ajahn Sumedho positively oozes charisma, and the Thai Forest Tradition in general has it in spades, especially for those who experience it through the idealized lens of its western interpreters. In the west, we still feel the loss of meaning and spiritual authenticity, and look to the traditions of genuine Buddhism to fill that hole in us.
Charisma is itself neutral. It is pre-moral and non-rational. It is a power, an energy, and I think it is similar, or identical to what anthropologists call ‘mana‘. (It seems this was the original meaning of the Indic ‘brahman‘.) It is that spark of magic, that mesmerizing something special. And like any energy, it polarizes and moves things. If it is used well, it has great benefits. But it is always open to abuse. Those who come under its sway are as if entranced; reason, doubt, and criticism are suspended.
This is why those with charisma must be contained within a social framework that limits their power and protects the rights of those who follow them. Those limits include, crucially, the right of dissent.
But see what has happened to that right. When a siladhara put her name to the bhikkhuni petition, she found later that monks had placed the petition on her door, with her name circled in red. This is bullying and intimidation, and yet there was no disciplinary action taken against the perpetrators.
In a climate like this, there is little wonder that, to my knowledge, not a single senior Ajahn from the WPP tradition has publicly expressed opposition to the Five Points. I do not believe for one moment that they all support them: in fact, I know that many of them will feel very uncomfortable about the situation. And yet they cannot speak out.
Similarly, this blog and other websites from Santi and the BSWA have been blocked in the Amaravati circle of monasteries. In addition, the free distribution books by Bhikkhu Bodhi on bhikkhuni ordination have, in some monasteries, not been made available to the public. Does this censorship remind you of anyone?
I have heard that my blog has been criticized by members of the Amaravati Sangha for being inaccurate, which is perhaps the justification for censorship. But as you all know, every post is open for comments. I read every comment and respond to everything I can. In the few cases when inaccuracies have been pointed out, I have corrected them within minutes. I have been contacted by three Ajahns from WPP complaining about things I have said, and claiming I had made mistakes. In all three cases, the Ajahns had not actually read what I said properly, and misquoted or misrepresented me. When I pointed this out, I never heard back from them.
No doubt, having written so much on this issue, there are some things that should be improved, some things said in the heat of the moment that would have been better if more carefully considered. But this does not justify the Amaravati censorship policy. That is merely an expression of a power structure based on fear and ignorance.
The modern opposition to bhikkhuni ordination is no ancient Buddhist tradition. It can be traced no earlier, so far as I am aware, than the abhorrent 1928 ruling against bhikkhuni in Thailand, made by monks who thought it reasonable to arrest nuns and throw them in jail for ordaining. (This was not a crime, since the 1928 ruling was subsequent to this episode).
That 1928 ruling is the ultimate authority on which WPP bases its opposition to bhikkhuni ordination. There has been no acknowledgement of this fact, nor any attempt to morally or legally question such an obviously unjust rule.
Moreover, there has been no acknowledgement of another inconvenient fact: the 1928 rule forbids a monk from giving the going forth to women. It does not distinguish between various forms of going forth. So in giving the going forth to women, Ajahn Sumedho has clearly and directly violated this rule. Ajahn Brahm did not break this rule, however, since he did not act as preceptor.
This, of course, merely confirms what we knew already. WPP’s insistence that they are merely following the Thai law, which was the fundamental basis of all their official statements on the matter, is a smokescreen. The real issue is treating women as equals. Ajahn Sumedho and the Amaravati circle can continue ‘within the fold’ as long as they treat women as second class.
The tragedy in all this is that is calls into question the very idea of a Western Sangha. It is painfully obvious that any spiritual tradition that cannot deal with women on a fair and equal basis has no future. For a long time, Buddhists in the west have moved towards a lay-oriented Buddhism, where women have a strong and positive role. At Santi and in Perth, as well as many other places, we are trying to show that adherence to traditional Vinaya does not mean the perpetuation of medieval morality. I keep on hoping that we are right.