All religious traditions claim to exert moral and spiritual authority. Most of the great world faiths also like to believe they are aligned with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations, the third of which is “to promote gender equality and empower women”. As Buddhists, it would therefore be a spectacular own-goal to diminish our moral authority on gender issues and make a mockery of the third MDG at an event that was supposed to show off how ethical and open-minded we are.
Yet this is precisely what last May’s Vesak Conference in Vietnam achieved by, at the last minute, hastily banning Ven. Ajahn Brahm’s (already approved) speech on bhikkhuni ordination. As a result, Theravada Buddhism’s public image and authority on gender issues has been unneccessarily weakened.
A Fishy Matter
Every year since 15 December 1999, the United Nations and the International Council for the Day of Vesak have jointly celebrated Vesak Day across the world. This year the 11th United Nations Day of Vesak was held in Vietnam. The International Association of Buddhist Universities chose Bai Dinh Temple as the venue for the Conference, which was to be called “Buddhism and the UN Millennium Development Goals”.
Ajahn Brahm’s approved paper was titled “Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Theravada Buddhism”. The theme was open, unambiguous, and hid nothing. To be fair to the organizers as well, the Conference had initially approved it. Within the paper, Ajahn Brahm addressed subjects that the organizers would have vetted, from gender inequality in Australia to the controversies within the current leadership of the Theravada. Since we trust that the committee was rigorous in approving papers, we can assume its members would also have read and approved of his essay’s conclusion:
“By restoring equity to women in the Theravada Sangha through the reinstating of the bhikkhuni ordination, we will be addressing the inferior status of women in many Theravada countries, promoting gender equity in education and, thereby, making a strong statement in support of the Third UN Millennium Development Goal.
By fixing our own house first, we have the considerable opportunity and moral authority through our books and sermons to inspire and encourage our Buddhist followers to also work towards gender equality in spheres other than religion. That will lead to a world with less violence, better health and more prosperity.”
After searching the official website of the International Association of Buddhist Universities, we found the Name and the Title list of “Panelists” for the UN Day of Vesak Conference 2014. Ven. Ajahn Brahm’s paper was listed at the top and is bizarrely still there. His selected paper was in the category of “The Millennium Development Goal 3: Promoting Gender Equality”. We were later told that the conference had to be rescheduled when Ajahn Brahm, as the first speaker, was banned.
Our reconstruction of events is as follows. Ajahn Brahm’s abstract was accepted on October 7, 2013 by the organizers through a vetting system listed on their website. The draft paper was accepted on November 17, 2013. His final copy was submitted in the middle of January this year. Dr. Dion Peoples, a member of the organizing committee, officially accepted the paper on February 11, 2014. By February 25, Ajahn Brahm had received an official invitation to speak at the conference from Ven. Thich Tanh Tu (Deputy Rector of Vietnam Buddhist University). His registration form to participate in the conference was officially accepted on March 7.
Ajahn Brahm flew to Vietnam overnight on May 7. He was then abruptly informed that his paper was banned by Ven. Thich Nhat Tu and the organizers in the Conference Hall a few minutes before the opening ceremony on May 8, just when the paper was to be delivered the next day. It is strange and unlikely that such a clumsy and abrupt ban was the work of one person. Up until the very last moment on May 8, there was clearly conflict within the International Council for the Day of Vesak.
We do not know who exactly influenced the International Council and lobbied for Ajahn Brahm’s speech to be banned. We reached out to Ven. Thich Nhat Tu, but the organizers were unavailable for comment. So we only have Ajahn Brahm’s word: “I was told by Ven. Thich Tanh Tu that the Vietnamese supported my paper, but the others led by the Thai members on the organizing committee objected. I was told two days later by the Sri Lankan monk, Ven. Dhammaratana, that the Vietnamese objected! The former statement was the most likely.” This indeed seems the most likely explanation, especially given Ajahn Brahm’s rocky history with the Thai lineage of Ajahn Chah. October 2009 was a turning point for his relationship with the Thai sangha after he was expelled for ordaining four women at his center in Bodhinyana.
While Ajahn Brahm stressed that it is not helpful to blame individuals, he also made it clear that: “The main point is that it was a United Nations sponsored conference, the theme was the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, the third of which is Gender Equality, and the organizing committee banned any discussion on gender equality in their own backyard, the sangha. That no discussion at all was allowed is the shameful point.”
It must first be clarified that this critique is not about Ajahn Brahm. Indeed, he had this to say: “When I was informed my paper was banned, I was not angry… It was good that they banned the paper, because of that people are reading it more!” Marginalizing him has only amplified his voice. Rather, this incident exposed decisively a vocal minority of Buddhists, in this case within the Theravada tradition, which does not take the applied realization of gender equality seriously.
We asked Susan S. Lee, Founder and Vice-Chairman of Bodhinyana International Foundation (which hosted Ajahn Brahm in Hong Kong), what she thought. She had this to say:
“This Convention Authority that pre-approved Ajahn Brahm’s article for delivery should not have allowed the International Committee [or the International Council ] to intervene in the last minute. Any disagreements could have at least been discussed prior to the delivery, or if all agreed, in an open dialogue for transparencies to present the conflicts, differences of opinions, disagreements on the references and conclusions. The prejudices and narrow-mindedness of some learned monks and/or laypersons involved have confirmed to me again that the wisdom and kindness are definitely not from the knowledge of the Buddha’s Teachings but from the practices.”
In his own statement, Gerald Lee, Bodhinyana International’s Chairman, said:
“Like Ajahn Brahm, It is my deep conviction that with patience and through education, some day, women from all over the world can, and will, become fully ordained nuns in the Theravada tradition, if they so choose. In fact, it is both legal and ethical for them to do so from a historical and social perspective: some 2,600 years ago during the Buddha’s time, the Buddha Himself performed ordinations of bhikkunis, and the very first one being his stepmother Mahaprajapati Gotami. Many of these women eventually became arahants. Their remarkable stories were recorded in the Therigatha, which is classified in the Khuddaka Nikaya in the Sutta Pitaka.”
Overall, a picture of what can only be called spite is emerging from within a shadowy portion of the International Council for the Day of Vesak, a deep and unhealed disdain for everything associated with Ajahn Brahm. By caving in to a vocal circle of Theravada authorities that sees Ajahn Brahm and bhikkhuni ordination as illegitimate, the Conference’s organizers scuppered any progress on the third MDG—women’s equality—at an event expressly held to address these concerns. How are observers to take a Buddhist conference on human and women’s rights seriously if they see open conflict about a speech on women’s ordination? Has this public relations disaster not served to highlight the ethical paralysis of the Theravada sangha on gender issues and a broader responsibility of all Buddhists to regain some of the moral authority it has lost?