The Imaginariums of the Nuns: Days That Are Past and Futures That May Yet Be

Here’s the paper I presented at the recent Sakyadhita conference in Yogyakarta. It may be the last piece of writing I publish for a while, so enjoy.

Nuns exist only in the imagination. When I close my eyes, and focus on what is real, there are no nuns there. Nor, for that matter, are there any monks, or lay people, or anyone else. So if we are to talk about any of these kinds of people, we are telling a story—a story that has some relation to fact, we hope, but where the facts are filled in with copious amounts of imagination.

We imagine a past and call it “history.” We imagine a future and call it “vision.” We imagine the present and call it “reality.” Or, to be sadder but more accurate, in Buddhism we mostly just imagine a past and say that’s “the way it is,” and we never imagine any future at all.

But if we are to have a future, it will be a future with nuns, and specifically with bhikkhunīs. The alternative is to let Buddhism be owned by the patriarchs, who coopted the Dhamma, used it to accumulate power, prestige, and real estate, and who hang on to these things even as they fade away into irrelevance. But this is no future at all. There is tremendous vitality and energy within the Buddhist world, we can see it in so many ways everywhere we look. And none of it, none of the spark, the renewal, the creation of possible futures, is happening within the halls of the patriarchs.

I became interested in the bhikkhunī issue when I noticed, as many people do, that most of the people who come to learn and practice Dhamma are women. Why is this so? One patriarch in Thailand, so I heard, said it was because all the dedicated men have ordained as monks. Ridiculous; the same phenomenon is seen everywhere, in places where there are few monastics of any sort; and anyway, it’s the same in other religions as well.

I asked a man at my former monastery in Thailand, and he said, “It’s because the men are working hard and have no time to come to the monastery.” “Funny,” I thought, “I always seem to see women working hard in the villages and men lounging around all day.”

So I did something very few monks ever seem to think of: I asked a woman for her opinion. She said, “It’s because the men prefer to go gambling, drinking, and whoring while their wives are at the temple.”

Tempting as it is, I don’t think that’s really the answer either. These are just imaginariums: worlds we live in that we build from our own thoughts and ideas. These worlds have some relation to the facts, but they are flexible and uncertain.

In my own imaginarium, the real reason why most spiritual seekers are women is because they are disempowered. It is because the opportunities for them in other spheres of life have been successively blocked or restricted. In addition to the absolute barriers of overtly sexist cultural constructs, there is the more subtle, pervasive, and ultimately more damaging “soft sexism,” which does not actually stop women from doing anything, but adds a grit to whatever women do, slowing them down, and making everything more work than it needs be. Everything is harder for women than it is for men.

So, they end up turning inwards. Let go of the external: you’ll never change it anyway, right? Change yourself, that’s the real Dhamma anyway.

Last year we had a series of sutta discussions in Sydney and invited a panel of young people to help out. One of the guys was seriously manspacing. You know what I mean: men taking up too much space—an unconscious assertion of male privilege. One of the women politely asked him to restrain himself, as it was seriously difficult for them to fit at the table. One of the other women jumped in and said, “Shouldn’t we just take this as a practice and let it go?” This is an example of how patriarchy gets internalized and women become its best defenders. Meanwhile, the guy did shrink his space—by about an inch or two. He was still taking up twice as much space as the women, apparently oblivious to the fact, even when it was pointed out. And the women exhausted their energies on the issue by disagreeing with each other. This is how the patriarchy wins.

When we talk about Buddhist history, we talk about what we imagine. The facts, such as they are, are barely relevant. A patriarch once said to me that we can’t have bhikkhunīs, because “It’s been like this since the beginning”.

When I started working on this issue, I took this attitude as a challenge and investigated the history of bhikkhunīs. Like others before me and since, I found that this simply was not the case. In the beginning, there were bhikkhunīs. There were also bhikkhunīs when Buddhism went to Sri Lanka and, according to our oldest records (the Sri Lankan vinaya commentaries, found in both Pāli and Chinese), there were bhikkhunīs when Buddhism was founded in Suvarnabhūmi (Myanmar/Thailand). But when I tried to bring these and many other findings to the attention of monks, I was disappointed to find they were not very interested. Patriarchs are proud of their history and try to maintain everything exactly as they imagine it was. When the facts at our disposal disagree with these imaginations, they are brushed aside. The past is not a reality; it is just another imaginarium.

I was very naïve. I thought that if the monks could learn about the situation, we would respond in an informed, compassionate manner. How wrong I was! What struck me was how little reason there was in the discussion, and how much energy. Whenever bhikkhunīs were mentioned, otherwise reasonable men came up with all kinds of absurd, irrational statements, pushed by a palpable psychic force: a compulsive need to deny the reality of bhikkhunīs at all costs. Many of the patriarchs are, it seems, quite willing to destroy themselves and their religion in order to deny bhikkhunīs.

I wrote a book about these things and I called it White Bones Red Rot, Black Snakes. It is the longest and most complex thing I have ever written or probably ever will write. I like it, but I think hardly anyone has read it. It’s a book about myth, about magic, about taboo, about bodily fluids, about imagination, and about darkness—all things that do not sit easily with how we like to think about Buddhism. But the gist of the book is simple. I’ll summarize it point by point, so you don’t have to read the whole thing. (But you should. It has very nice pictures.)

  1. How we think about bhikkhunīs in the present is conditioned (not determined!) by how Buddhists thought about bhikkhunīs in the past;
  2. How bhikkhunīs were thought of in the past is part of how women were thought of in the past;
  3. How women were thought of in the past includes dark and bright aspects; and
  4. All this happens in the minds of men.

If we are to imagine a future, then there are many things it may be, but one thing it must be is fully human. We can no longer let half of humanity arrogate the Dhamma to itself. The future of the Dhamma is human, and that is all of us.

The sight of a monastic is one of humanity’s most recognizable, powerful, and durable symbols. It was the sight of a monastic—the robes, the shaven head, the bowl—that inspired the bodhisatta, Prince Siddhartha, to go forth from home to homelessness, in the hope of putting an an end to suffering. Probably each of us has had a similar experince of this symbol. I have a very old, very dim memory—just a half-grasped echo—of a nun, a Buddhist nun, on a television show, probably Australian ABC, probably a documentary made in the 1970s. That is my earliest image of a Buddhist monastic. I don’t know who she was, but thank you: your image was mysterious, challenging, and haunting. You made a difference.

Monastics bear these signs externally. And that, for men anyway, is very easy. You can go to Thailand, show up at any of 1,000 monasteries, and get ordained this weekend. No problems, no questions. You’re a bhikkhu and you are the genuine heir to the Dhamma—or at least that’s how a male monastic’s external image is perceived. Inside, of course, is another matter.

This is an area where women are the experts. Women are used to being judged and judging on appearances. Femininity is a performance, to be beholden and to be criticized, by men and women. If you are a human being who happens to be female, becoming a monastic is a decision to stop the performance of femininity. For monks, whose monasticism is also a performance, this is not easy to accept.

Mahākassapa sometimes doesn’t get have such a good reputation when it comes to women’s issues. He comes across as a bit of a grumpy old monk who doesn’t think too much of women. One of the many pleasant surprises I came across while writing White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes was that his story, as imagined by the Buddhist community, reveals a powerful and moving insight into how femininity is performed

To be very brief, when Mahākassapa was a young man, his family wanted him to marry. But he didn’t want to, so he set an impossible task for himself. He made a beautiful statue of gold of the perfect women and he said he would only marry a woman who looked like that. Well, that was no easy matter, but messengers set out across the country, exhibiting the statue in markets and town squares. Nowhere could they find a woman so beautiful. One day, an old nursemaid came up to the statue and gave it a slap, thinking it was Bhaddā Kāpilānī, the daughter of her family, who apparently matched this ideal image. And so the marriage was arranged. Bhaddā, it turned out, was no more interested in marriage that the young man was. The two exchanged letters, but the letters were intercepted and destroyed by their families. (Notice that both were equally literate.) The two were married, but agreed to live a chaste life, with a garland of flowers lain between them in bed. When the time came, they went forth and both became arahants.

There is an interesting coda to this idealized love story. The story is found, so far as I know, only in a Tibetan source. Even as a nun, Bhaddā was so stunning that when she went to the village for alms, she had to endure the catcalls of men. So on her life’s journey, she was joined to Mahākassapa, because of her appearance. She was all image, like a statue. Through her connection with him, in a relation of mutual support and respect, they both found a path to a truer inner reality. She let go of her image and consciously chose the external signs of a renunciant to announce her inward journey. Yet the men making catcalls did not respect her choice any more than the patriarchs today respect the choices of women. When Mahākassapa heard about this, he offered to help. “Stay, Bhaddā,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to put up with this. I will collect alms for you.” Here we have, so far as I know, the first time in history that a man helped a woman deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

Ask people who work in the field of development and they will tell you that the key to prosperity in any country is empowering women. A Google image search for “meditation” yields images mostly of women. (The images are usually white, slim, pretty young women, signaling that meditation has a diversity problem. But that’s a topic for another time.) It is obvious that if the future of Buddhism is to take a healthy form, it will include women.

We can continue to imagine a past where there were no women, or where women were content to offer food and wash robes for the monks. And we can long for a future where this simple, reassuring bit of fantasy is the only reality. But this future will never exist.

In our minds now, the future has the same dreamy haze as the imagined past. The difference is this: In every moment, that dreamy haze collides with the reality of the present. We’re tumbling headlong into a future and our dreams are constantly being exposed in the pitiless light of day. If we imagine a past where women are forever the lesser and the “other,” we’re in for a bumpy ride. But if we imagine a past where humanity is lived, in all its depravity and glory, then maybe we can start to imagine a future for Buddhism that is living.

History is on our side. We don’t have to do much of anything, just stay the course. The day of the patriarchs is over. But there is one thing that, more than anything else, can derail the future for nuns. And that is if the nuns start acting like the patriarchs.

We—and here I mean the monks who have supported the nuns—have given everything so that women can live as fully ordained nuns. To do so, we received no support from our peers and we have had to go against the power structures and hierarchies of our respective orders.

We are happy to do that, because we know that those hierarchies are not the Dhamma. They are not vinaya. In large measure, in fact, they are the exact opposite of the Dhamma and the vinaya. The notion that the sangha should be governed by a politically appointed hierarch, authorized by an act of Parliament, and imposing his will on the sangha, is a feudal system of governance that was reinvented in modern times. Yet in recent months, we have seen monks in Thailand—even so-called “forest” monks—marching on the streets of Bangkok to protect their right to be governed by a feudal hierarchy.

The vinaya as taught by the Buddha is all about collective ownership, decision making by consensus, and the rule of principle. No monastic has the power of command over any other. All monastics must participate in important decisions. It is the sangha, and the sangha alone, that has the power when it comes to making decisions in accordance with the vinaya. The vinaya gives nuns the power to choose their own destiny: to make their own decisions, to build their own monasteries, to run their own communities, and to do their own teaching.

Buddhist nuns now have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do away with the feudal hierarchies. Don’t choose hierarchy over vinaya. Don’t choose to let this happen, and then, when it doesn’t work out, undermine your own authority by asking monks to fix it.

Let’s be clear: top-down hierarchies do not work. They create dysfunctional, sclerotic, out-of-touch institutions. In countries like Thailand, people talk of the need to reform the sangha hierarchies. But reform is what is done to correct something that is basically okay and needs to be improved. What the hierarchies need is not reform, but abolition. They’re dead weight. Get rid of them and Buddhism will be much better off.

This why the Buddha deliberately set up his sangha: to undermine hierarchy, by rejecting the preeminence of the brahmins and the nobility, by empowering every single member of his sangha. Let the Buddha’s sangha be your sangha, and let the Buddha’s vinaya be your vinaya. Hierarchies serve only the desires of men to control real estate and other worldly assets. In Buddhism, vitality comes from those who reject the hierarchies and work outside them.

Let me leave you with one of my favorite lines from the pātimokkha:

evam samvaddhā hi tassa bhagavato parisā yadidam aññamaññavacanena aññamañña-vutthāpanena

For this is how there comes to be growth in the Buddha’s following, that is, with mutual admonishment and mutual rehabilitation.

Pali bhikkhuni saṅghādisesa 16, bhikkhu saṅghādisesa 12.

Sujato in Europe

Just a reminder: I’m disappearing off to Taiwan, but I’ll be in Europe later in the year.

You can follow details here:

And here’s where I’m teaching:

Exploring Meaning – multi-faith climate change workshop

To get to the heart of the matter

In an atmosphere of equality, take the opportunity to explore what climate change means to us from the heart. Hear from faith leaders, an aboriginal elder and a climate scientist to understand what it means to them.

Prof. Lesley Hughes, Donna Jacobs Sife, Frances Bodkin and Bhante Sujato will speak to the meaning of climate change from the backgrounds of science, Judaism, Buddhism & Aboriginal culture. We will co-create the exploration of what it means to our selves, to others, and what diverse perspectives emerge through the journey.


Book your free ticket here

6pm : Samosas, bananas and winter warming beverages served

📅 Thu, Jun 18 2015 6:30 PM – 9:30 PM

@ Mitchell Theatre, 280 Pitt Street Sydney NSW 2000, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Graeme Lyall has passed on

Dear friends,

On Vesak day, May 3 2015 at 3.40pm, Graeme Lyall passed away. Those familiar with Buddhism in Australia will know of Graeme’s unsurpssed service to Buddhism in this country and internationally. He was the senior Buddhist in the whole country, having been part of the original Buddhist Society of NSW from its inception in 1953.

I won’t give you a history of his life, but will share with you some of my memories of him as a man.

Graeme reminded me of the Monkey character from the classic show: his nature is irrepressible! He was an august and respected figure, but in the true Australian spirit never let that become pomposity or conceit. He laughed and joked all the time, and his humor always had a point to it.

Graeme was a man after my own heart, in that he was not afraid to speak his mind. If you think Buddhists are often too quiet in the face of events that need to be spoken of, you haven’t read Graeme’s amazing website. The domain seems to have lapsed recently and is now run by a different group. But you can still see snapshots on the Internet Archive; here’s the most recent:

I met him for the last time a few months ago, and as always he was in fine spirits, and speaking of his work as a prison chaplain. Not for him the lazy retirement of the dignitary. He went straight to those most in need, and gave them his heart.

And he was still growing in his own heart. I was very privileged to see a little moment a few years ago that spoke so much to me. I don’t want to give any personal details, but there had been some disagreement between Graeme and someone else involved in the Buddhist scene. They ran into each other at a ceremony I was at, and when they saw each other there was a moment of recognition: and then a big hug! To me that’s a sign of a real practitioner. Not to be perfect, but to forgive and to move on.

While Graeme was deeply non-sectarian in his approach to Dhamma, he had a strong connection with the Chinese Pure Land tradition, and was a close student of Master Chin Kung. A number of years ago, when he was very ill, he laughed with me that he would be soon in the Pure Land. He was delighted at the prospect!

Wherever he is now, I have no doubt at all that he’s happy. He devoted his life to sharing the joy of the Dhamma, and I know that he would just want you to be happy as well. So let’s make his life meaningful by staying happy. And if anyone has some thoughts or memories of Graeme you’d like to share, please leave them below.

SuttaCentral now has donations

SuttaCentral is now accepting donations.

Donate to SuttaCentral

In the past we did not set up a donations facility, as we had enough funds for our limited needs. Now, however, we are employing a full time developer, in addition to several other ongoing costs, such as typing the texts in several languages. So we have set this up to guarantee our future stability.

The work behind the scenes has been mainly done by Deepika, who has set up the SuttaCentral Development Trust. Details are on our Donations page.

The facility has been set up using the secure modern payment system, Stripe.

If you think SuttaCentral is amazing, now you can help us make it even better.

9 day Sutta Retreat at Jhana Grove with Bhantes Sujato & Brahmali

This is a residential retreat organized by the Buddhist Fellowship. Ven Brahmali and myself will be presenting DN16 Mahaparinibbana Sutta, with time for discussions and meditations.

It’s Vesak season, so we’ll take the chance to spend some time with the Buddha as he slowly makes his way towards his final passing. It’s one of the most moving and powerful texts in all of Buddhism.

Friday, 24 April 2015 at 17:00—Sunday, 3 May 2015 at 11:00 (AWST)

Bookings are being organized through the Buddhist Fellowship in Singapore, who proposed and organized the retreat. You can email Eng Chin at:

Translating the Four Nikayas

Dear blog-friends, my apologies for abandoning you for the past several weeks, or is it months now? I have, as you may have suspected, been occupied with other things, primarily with doing work for SuttaCentral.

One of the reasons for my focus on SuttaCentral is that I am planning on taking an extended break in order to translate Pali suttas.

Since it’s mainly concerning SuttaCentral, I’ve put the main post on our Discourse forum, where you can read all about it and voice your comments:

Read about my translation project.