BD Dipananda/Raymond Lam: Banning Ajahn Brahm’s speech on nuns was a spectacular own-goal by the International Council for the Day of Vesak

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.”

Diminished Ideals

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?

9 thoughts on “BD Dipananda/Raymond Lam: Banning Ajahn Brahm’s speech on nuns was a spectacular own-goal by the International Council for the Day of Vesak

  1. What can you say? I am bemused but also saddened and disappointed. How can such an international conference claim to have any credibility if it shuts down discussion on obvious points of interest. I am just trying to imagine what it must be like to feel like to have a monopoly on Buddhist thought and wisdom. I hope I don’t think like that and believe I know what is best for everyone else. Rue the day!

  2. Hi Sujato,
    I have two points related more or less closely to this issue.
    1) The first is a reflection on the epistemological and ethical claims in Buddhism. According to these claims, practicing meditation (ideally in a Monastery) is part of the path leading to ‘seeing things as they really are’ (despite the view of modern philosophy that there is no such thing as that, but only different perspectives and interpretations of reality) and for improving oneself ethically. Would you agree that the behavior of so many monks in this issue contradicts these claims, since they do not seem to see reality more lucidly than ordinary people like us laymen, and do not seem to be more morally advanced than us? I think that this point is important since unlike Christianity – that states that truth is revealed and written in the Bible – Buddhism teaches that one is supposed to see truth by oneself by following a path that frees us from our defilements and delusions. However those who have been considering putting their whole life, as it were, into following this path, may legitimately want to find some sort of empirical confirmation of the truth of this claim by looking at where this path has in practice led so many monks, and may be discouraged in seeing how unwise and power-hungry they seem. So would you agree that these events, even though they do not constitute a formal refutation of the claim of Buddhism, seriously raise the question of the truth of the Buddhist teachings (I mean in a much more serious way than, say, the bad behavior of Catholic priests undermines faith in Christianity?)
    2) Secondly, I wanted to ask you for your comment on something that I was told on a visit some months ago to a Monastery in the Ajahn Chah tradition here in Europe (I discovered Buddhism through Ajahn Brahm’s books and went to that Monastery hoping to practice in the same spirit since at the time of my visit I was largely ignorant of the friction between them and Ajahn Brahm). Their comments on the nuns ordination were that women did not need Ajahn Brahm to defend them, and indeed I saw nuns who were able to practice here in Europe and said they would not want to come to Perth (though I understand that in the European Monastery they do not have the same status as men have). So my questions are: what is your reply to the claim that in Perth monks are using the women issue for their own publicity? And second, since I saw that women were able to practice in the European Monastery anyway – which is the point of becoming a nun – why have this big controversy on the issue of full ordination (which as far as I understand is an issue of status)? If I were to go to a Monastery it would be precisely with the idea of giving up the social status that I have in lay life. I do agree that women should be treated exactly in the same way as men in the Monastery, but since life is inherently unjust (I think Ajahn Brahm qualifies the world as rubbish) why not be pragmatic and just be content with the fact that women are already able to practice in Europe – and hopefully achieve Nirvana and leave the world, which I understand is the aim of this path? What’s the point of wanting to put things straight in this world, in which there will always be suffering and injustice no matter what we do?
    With thanks for your opinion and kind regards

    • Hi Stefano,

      Thanks, these are very interesting questions!

      (1) I think this is something that all of us should consider, and not dismiss lightly. There is something very wrong when serious spiritual practitioners so unscrupulously undermine attempts to speak of what is right. The ethical positions of these monks, in terms of both the principles and the practices, are greatly inferior to that of any ordinary person: even a child knows that it is wrong to treat people unfairly. How can it be that after many years of practice you end up not merely unenlightened, but with a less compassionate and less wise morality than a child at school? I have struggled deeply with this question, and my attempts to answer it made up my longest and most complex book: White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes.

      But to put it very briefly, the Buddha addressed this very problem. He was asked whether those in his community would all find their way to Nibbana. He gave the example of someone who points out directions to a certain place. He can give perfectly accurate directions, but will everyone get there? No; inevitably some will get lost. But that isn’t the fault of the one giving directions.

      So the question here is, is the problem one with the directions or because of not following them? And this is what has been documented and discussed at length on this blog and elsewhere. Those who have been creating these problems by opposing bhikkhuni ordination and the equality of women have not been following the directions. This is not merely a rhetorical claim, it is very specific. Those who have been supporting bhikkhuni ordination have consistently based ourselves on a close and critical reading of what the Buddha actually taught. Meanwhile, those who are opposed to bhikkhuni ordination have based themselves on “tradition” or “Thai law”, or have not even bothered to justify themselves, working in the darkness to disrupt and damage, as we have seen in the recent UNDV debacle.

      (2a) The purpose of bhikkhuni ordination is to support human beings to practice the Dhamma. The idea that the purpose of bhikkhuni ordination is self aggrandizement is utterly absurd. Bhikkhuni ordination was established by the Buddha, and maintained by the Buddhist community in multiple countries for thousands of years. It is currently in revival in every Buddhist culture. We were merely following the example of the Buddha, his followers, and our contemporaries from Sri Lanka, India, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, America, Germany, and elsewhere. There is nothing surprising that Dhamma practitioners, who have enjoyed the benefits of the holy life, should want to support and encourage others who want to walk the same path. What requires an explanation is this: Why do some monks support ordination only for people who have the same shaped genital organs that they have?

      Look at the form of this argument. Someone who is part of an organization that has an explicit policy of discriminating against women makes an allegation that those who support women’s ordination have unwholesome motivation. They have no idea what our actual motivations are, apart from what we have stated publicly, so this is something they have just made up out of their heads. They do this because they cannot make a rational moral argument to support their position, since discrimination is obviously immoral. So they resort to the classical fallback of the failed debater: attack the person, not the position (ad hominem). This is, of course, in direct contradiction with not only modern logic theory, but with the explicit statements of the Buddha. (See eg. the Aranavibhanga Sutta, MN 139) In fact this is an excellent example of the point I made earlier, that those who oppose bhikkhuni ordination and equality for women can only do so by ignoring the directions given by the Buddha. The purpose of this kind of rhetorical move is to deflect attention from the actual problem—discrimination against women.

      (2b) Not all women want to be bhikkhunis—so what? Of all the arguments against women’s ordination, this is perhaps the most fatuous. No-one has been so silly as to argue that all nuns should become bhikkhunis. We have argued that those who want to become bhikkhunis should be able to. This is a simple matter of human rights. And this is not just my opinion, it is the opinion of the Thai Senate Select committee, who argued that the ban on bhikkhuni ordination was unconstitutional, as it contravened the rights of equality and of religious freedom.

      Once again this argument serves only to distract from the issues. When we perform bhikkhuni ordination, we don’t try to control how others are living their lives. It is the monks of Wat Pa Pong who repeatedly tried to force us to never perform bhikkhuni ordination in many ways: accusing Ajahn Brahm at a press conference of temple mismanagement; instigating a petition to have Ajahn Brahm kicked out of his monastery; lobbying the Thai Sangha authorities to the same end; pressuring lay people to cancel talks, events, and retreats; making monks delete Ajahn Brahm’s talks; refusing to let monks stay at the monastery, or join in the uposatha, or even travel on a journey together with Wat Pa Pong monks; and many other things equally petty and spiteful.

      No doubt there are some nuns who will defend the system that discriminates against them. The same thing happens in any unjust environment. But you will also find that many nuns have left or disrobed, and they have spoken of the pain and hardship they endured because of the sexist culture in those monasteries.

      These things should be behind us. Bhikkhunis in Thailand and Burma have suffered intimidation and even jail for the crime of practicing their religion. Right now, bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka are struggling for recognition of the basic human rights; and in Bangladesh they struggle to exist. It’s just not good enough. We shouldn’t have to defend equality. Because #YesAllBuddhistWomen suffer from discrimination. And we are all diminished.

  3. Let me be clear/transparent only for myself, since I am mentioned in the article. The International Association of Buddhist Universities, is usually the agency responsible for organizing the academic-portion of the annual United Nations Day of Vesak. Although we were created by the UNDV council in 2007, we are a different unit, and are academically concerned with improving Buddhism, for the benefit of all. As the Manager of the IABU, our academic-committee approved the paper of Ajahn Brahm. I won’t mention names, but there was another very influential person who also seen that the paper was of no major drama. Further: the conference was not being held in Thailand, were the issue was more sensitive. So, academically, Ajahn Brahm’s paper was approved by the IABU, and we have NOTHING more to do with the conference. We delivered the papers to the Vietnamese host-agents. On a separate matter: the Vietnamese host-agents went behind the back of the IABU and asked for papers from scholars who were previously rejected (complaining to the host-agent, whom they are close-friends with), and the host-agents made room for them in the conference. Out of protest for the back-door/deceptive activities by the host agency, the IABU officially withdrew from the conference. Notice on the IABU website: we maintain a list of the approved papers. Papers that were published or presented at the UNDV-2014 without the approval of the IABU should not have been presented for various reasons. Anyhow, I was not in Vietnam, so I don’t know from my own eyes, but received private communication by Ajahn Brahm, following the aftermath. He knows where I stand on the issue, I have always supported his endeavors, and I try to recruit him annually to present at the UNDV/IABU (separate entities, but often held together) conferences. His paper, again, fit in the scheme of things: “The Buddhist Perspective towards achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals”. I assert: there should have been no professional obstacle or barrier for his presentation. Anything else I may say on the issue is redundant. I know who the antagonists are, but it can be asserted that “if” the blame is on the International Council for the Day of Vesak, there are lay-members and monastic members that are to possibly be blamed. I personally asked Ven. Thich Nhat Tu about inviting Ajahn Brahm, and he saw no issue with that, as there is a friendly relationship between them, The issue rests solely with the hyper-vigilance of some ICDV members, who are annually harming the conference, and who seem to dominate the public sessions. Anyone attending can guess who the antagonists are; one may not be so obvious, as he tends to not engage with the public, but acts as a rat, for the bulldog. Yes it is a shameful episode. The IABU did not sanction the event, despite all of our (my) organization-efforts to recruit, examine, and approve the papers for the good of the public, on the theme of the Buddhist Perspectives Towards Achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals. I received much feedback about this DARK event in our his/story. We maintain our admiration for Ajahn Brahm and feel we need more champions for justice. The IABU yearns for more professional-scholars who can develop ideas and challenge society in ways that affirm Buddhist teachings. We have a very humble (no exaggeration) website, where our goals/vision/mission are listed, and accordingly, Ajahn Brahm should have no professional barriers for his annual attendance. If the issue is directly with him and the Thai sangha: leave that issue in the background INSIDE Thailand, but in speaking in Vietnam (again), there should have been no barrier, no opposition. I fret to think this was “personal opposition” by some executive-agents.

    • Dear Dion,

      Thanks so much. It is wonderful to hear your perspective, and I wish we could have more such clarity. One of the tragedies of this episode is that it undermines the good will, effort, and generosity of the vast majority of good people such as yourself who support the conference and made it happen. I truly hope that Buddhism can move towards embracing transparent, accountable governance at the national and international level. Conflicts of interest will always occur, but there should be reasonable ways of dealing with them.

  4. Moreover, as a testament of my professionalism, annually I have tried to increase the amount of women participating in the conference, and also have tried to increase the role of ‘minorities’ in the conference – anyone looking at the statistics of the conference since I have been steering the ‘machine’, since 2007, can see what I have done to develop scholars with the IABU, for the UNDV, and for Buddhism, and the World, by extension. I work for Buddhism, not for self, never for self. Thank you, for this chance to clarify only my point/perspective – side of the story. The rest of the issue remains for the antagonists.

  5. Thank you Bhante Sujato for your detailed answer. I have now downloaded White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes and I look forward to reading it. With all good wises. Stefano

  6. Ironically, perhaps the greatest threat to Bhikkhuni ordination will be the pretending by those who actually oppose it to ‘accept’ it. When the orthodox ‘elite’ see that this issue has got too much momentum and they can no longer contain it, they will then set about ‘accepting’ it so they can then control it. And they have got at their disposal the perfect tools to do it: the 8 guradhammas (whose authenticity, by the way, has been shown by scholars to be highly questionable.) I imagine that if Bhikkhuni ordination is accepted by those who in their hearts actually oppose it, one of their conditions of giving Bhikkhuni ordination will be the requirement for the Bhikkhunis to strictly observe of the 8 garudhammas. If I was a woman and had to observe these rules to the letter, I would think twice before ordaining. In this way orthodoxy will win because it will appear to support Bhikkhhuni ordination but actually not.

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