Here’s a reflective and carefully thought out essay on the position of women in early Buddhism. The author, Bhikkhu Cintita, does not try to avoid the apparent discrepancies, and chooses to interpret them through the overarching message of love and compassion that resonates through all the Buddha’s words.
Here’s a recent article, front page on today’s online Bangkok Post, by senior editor and tireless bhikkhuni advocate Sanitsuda Ekachai. She is scathing in her assessment of the recent debacle at the UNDV, and its implcations for the wider Thai Sangha. Here’s an excerpt; but you really should read the whole thing.
The ban shows how deeply Thai Buddhism is mired in the culture of patriarchy that refuses to see men and women as equal. Ask mainstream monks why women suffer, and their standard answer is because women sinned in their past lives.
“Make more merit,” is also their standard recommendation. “So you will be born men in your next lives.” The best merit, they would continue, comes from donations to monks.
It confounds me how most Thai women still take this nonsense submissively and continue to give their hard-earned money to build big temples only to be told that they cannot enter the temple’s most sacred area because women menstruate, thus are “dirty”.
It also confounds me how some pro-democracy advocates strongly defend this sexist practice on the ground that it is part of local culture, and thus must be preserved.
After the May 22 coup, the incurable optimists among us are busy preparing recommendations on all sorts of reforms to the military junta. Some advocates for Sangha reform believe the military should amend the draconian Sangha Bill to end the clergy’s feudal system which is deeply authoritarian and corrupt.
According to research by Nada Chansom of the National Institute of Development Administration, 37,075 temples nationwide receive between 100 and 120 billion baht in donation money each year. Abbots have total control of this tax-free temple money with no monitoring from the Supreme Sangha Council nor from any government agencies.
Can democratic reform occur under military dictatorship? Can women be spiritually equal under patriarchal clergy? Those who believe in change do not waste time asking those questions. They take things into their own hands. For female ordination, women simply discard resistance from Thai Theravada clergy and seek ordination elsewhere.
On December 1 1955, in Montgomery Alabama, an African-American woman refused to obey a bus driver’s order to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. That simple act of defiance for the cause of social justice became one of the most important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movements in the USA. That woman was Rosa Parks. The United States Congress called her “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”. December 1 is commemorated in the US states of California and Ohio as “Rosa Parks Day”.
Rosa Parks became a Buddhist before she passed away in 2005 aged 92. One can speculate that this female icon against discrimination chose Buddhism because it is well suited to advancing social justice issues.
In this paper, I will discuss how Buddhism may advance the particular social justice issue of Millennium Development Goal No. 3: Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. I will focus on the need for Theravada Buddhism’s current male leadership to clearly demonstrate its own commitment to MDG 3 through acceptance of the bhikkhuni ordination. Only then can it use its considerable influence to make our world more fair, one where people are judged on their character and not on their gender.
Gender Inequality in Australia and the Contributions of Buddhist Leaders
In a report on gender equity issued by the Council of Australian Governments on Tuesday 19 November 2013, the median salary of new female graduates in Australia was found to be 10% less than that of male graduates. Even though they were equally qualified, women received less pay than men. Thus even in a developed country such as Australia, gender inequality still persists. In less developed countries it is far worse.
My colleague, Ajahn Sujato, recently attended the 2013 Religions for Peace World Assembly in Vienna, sponsored by the king of Saudi Arabia. He reported in his blog:
One panel was devoted to the role of women in religion, and that was, predictably, powerful and moving. Rape, domestic violence, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, maternal mortality: these are all-too-painful realities for many women; and meanwhile male-dominated religious morality obsesses about correct doctrine and stopping gays. The suffering of women is rarely featured in religious discourse, and as one of the delegates said, when it is mentioned it is tepid and equivocal. Yet as those working in development know well, empowerment of women is the single most effective means of lifting countries out of poverty.
As Buddhists who espouse the ideal of unconditional loving kindness and respect, judging people on their behavior instead of their birth, we should be well positioned to show leadership on the development of gender equality in the modern world and the consequent reduction of suffering for half the world’s population. Moreover, if Buddhism is to remain relevant and grow, we must address these issues head on. But how can we speak about gender equality when some of our own Theravada Buddhist organizations are gender biased?
In Australia, the Anglican Christian Church represents 17.1% of the population (2011 National Census) and is maintaining its relevance by ordaining female bishops. In May 2008, in Perth, I was invited to attend the ordination of the world’s first female bishop in the Anglican Christian Church, Rev. Kay Goldsworthy. The media response to the recognition of women in the Anglican Church was overwhelmingly positive. Such initiatives shine a damming spotlight on other religions in Australia that still discriminate on the basis of gender. But it shone a positive light on Theravada Buddhism in Perth that has fully ordained nuns.
Unfortunately, other Theravada Buddhist temples and monasteries in Australia and in other parts of the world still adhere to excluding women from full membership of the Sangha. I will later argue that there is no legal basis in the Vinaya, the ancient Buddhist Monastic Code, to deny women full ordination. Moreover, when parts of Theravada Buddhism are generally considered to unreasonably prevent women from full membership of the Sangha, then they have no moral authority to speak on gender equality. They have lost the opportunity to speak for the empowerment of women in other parts of society and advance the Third Millennium Development Goal.
When Mahatma Gandhi was a law student in London, the landlady of his boarding house asked him to have a talk with her son. Her boy was eating too much sugar and would not listen to his mother when she told him to stop. Yet the boy had a fondness for the young Mr. Gandhi. She suggested that if Mr. Gandhi advised her son not to eat so much sugar then he might follow the good advice. A week or two went by and the landlady’s son was still eating lots of sugar. So she took Mr. Gandhi aside and asked him why he had not kept his promise to talk with her son. “But I did talk with your son” Mr. Gandhi replied, “but only this morning.” “So why did you wait so long?” “Because it was only yesterday that I gave up eating sugar”. Such was the reply of the great man.
Religious leaders, above all others, must practice what they preach to be taken seriously and for their advice to be effective.
The Power of Leading by Example
According to the latest figures from Wikipedia, there are between 506 million to 1,146 million Buddhists in our world. Even at the lower estimate that is a significant proportion of the global population. The vast majority of these look to their monks and lamas for inspiration, guidance and moral leadership. Moreover, many of these Buddhists are in undeveloped or developing countries where the empowerment of women is crucial for those countries’ economic development and social progress. In today’s highly connected world, words are not enough. Actions are demanded.
Master Cheng Yen, the female founder of the International Tzu Chi Foundation, is an example of the power of an ordained Buddhist Nun. Ordained in Taiwan in 1962, at a time when women had little influence in social policy, she is now regarded as an icon throughout her homeland as well as internationally. She has built state-of-the-art earthquake-proof hospitals in Taiwan, led the way in encouraging recycling of waste in her country, and established the largest Buddhist Relief Organization in our world. When I visited Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan in May 2013, I was shown how discarded plastic bottles were turned into blankets to be sent to natural disaster zones, such as the areas devastated by the recent Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Much of the work was done by retired men and women who gained meaning in their lives together with the considerable emotional and health benefitsthat such a social activity provides. They were enjoying their twilight years instead of wasting away at home. No monk or lama has done anything comparable.
For Buddhism to grow in our modern world, we need to do more than teach meditation, preach inspiring sermons, and make the Sutras available over the internet. We are good at studying, publishing and spreading the word of Buddhism. What we have not been very successful at is showcasing the compassion and selflessness of the Dharma by our actions. We have written many more words in our books than what few kind words we have spoken to the poor, lonely and desperate. We have built so many more temples than orphanages.
Female Leadership in Theravada Buddhist Countries.
Sri Lanka, a majority Theravada Buddhist country, can be proud of having the modern world’s first female Prime Minister, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1960. Myanmar would have had its first female head of government in 1990 when Aung San Su Kyi and her NLD party won 59% of the popular vote in the national election, but the election result was not accepted. In 2013, Thailand elected their first female Prime Minister, Yingluk Shinawatara.
This shows that Theravada Buddhist laypeople can accept women in leadership roles. Why, then, can’t the Sangha?
Theravada Buddhist monks, generally speaking, are very conservative. They often claim that they are the guardians of “Original Buddhism” from the time of the Lord Buddha Himself. They consider that one of their most important duties is to preserve these precious and authentic early teachings. In this context, what was the tradition in the time of The Lord Buddha with regard to women in the Sangha?
All monks of all traditions in all countries, and all Buddhist lay scholars as well, fully accept that there were fully ordained women, called Bhikkhuni, in the lifetime of the Buddha. Moreover, it is clearly stated in these early teachings that one of the goals of the Lord Buddha’s mission was to give the full ordination to women:
Ananda, once I was staying at Uruvela on the bank of the river Neranjara (present day Bodh Gaya) under the Goatherd’s Banyan tree, when I had just attained supreme enlightenment. And Mara the Evil One had come to me, stood to one side and said “May the Blessed One now attain final Nibbana, may the Sugata now attain final Nibbana. Now is the time for the Blessed Lord’s final Nibbana.”
At this, I said to Mara: “Evil One, I will not take final Nibbana until I have bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men and lay women followers, who are accomplished, trained, skilled, learned, knowers of the Dhamma, trained in conformity with the Dhamma, correctly trained and walking in the path of the Dhamma, who will pass on what they have gained from their Teacher, teach it, declare it, establish it, expound it, analyse it, make it clear, until they shall be able by means of the Dhamma to refute false teachings that have arisen, and teach the Dhamma of wondrous effect.
Theravada Buddhists should have an advantage over other major world religions because their tradition explicitly gives such equity to women. Christianity has no tradition of gender equality in their priesthood. Nor does Islam, Judaism or the various schools of Hinduism. Buddhism stands apart and ahead of its time in granting such status to women from “when I (the Lord Buddha) had just attained supreme enlightenment” at Bodh Gaya.
Therefore, full ordination of women is part of the earliest tradition. It is also the declared wish of the Lord Buddha
Obstacles to Gender Equality in the Theravada Sangha
There are two main obstacles to the acceptance of the Bhikkhuni Ordination in Theravada Buddhism: 1) Ignorance about who makes the decisions that govern the Sangha, and 2) Ignorance of the Vinaya, the rules established by the Lord Buddha that restrict what decisions may be made.
1. Many monks in Thailand argue that a ruling from the Sangharaja of Thailand in 1928 bans the ordination of female monks:
“It is unallowable for any Bhikkhu to give the Going-Forth to Women.
Any woman who wishes to ordain as a Samaneri, in accordance with the Buddha’s allowances, has to be ordained by a fully ordained Bhikkhuni. The Buddha laid down the rule that only a Bhikkhuni over 12 vassas is eligible to be a Preceptor (pavattini).
The Buddha did not allow for a Bhikkhu to be the preceptor in this ceremony. Unfortunately, the Bhikkhuni lineage has since faded and died out. Since there is no more fully-fledged Bhikkhunis to pass on the lineage, there is henceforth no Samaneris who have obtained a proper ordination from a fully-fledged Bhikkhuni.
Therefore both the Bhikkhuni and Samaneri lineage has died out. So any Bhikkhu who gives the going forth to a woman to become a Samaneri, it can be said that the Bhikkhu is not acting in accordance with the regulations the Buddha laid down. In essence, he is following his own guidelines and diverging from the guidelines that the Buddha laid down. This is something that will jeopardize the Buddhist Religion and is not a good example for other Bhikkhus.
Therefore, all monks and novices in both Nikayas are forbidden to ordain any woman as a Bhikkhuni, Sikkhamana, or Samaneri from this day forth.”
Phra Bancha Somdet Phra Sangharacha Jiao Gromluang Jinawarn Siriwad (18 June 2471)
Official announcement from the Sangha Committee Meeting minutes, Book 16 p. 157.
As well as noting the antiquity of this ruling, it should also be pointed out that the Sangharaja of Thailand, together with the Thai Council of Elders (Mahatherasamakom), are only permitted by their legally binding constitution to rule on matters directly concerning the monks and novices of the main two Thai Buddhist sects, Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttanikaya. They are legally not empowered to rule on the affairs of other monastic groups, such as Chinese Mahayana monks in Thailand, nor on nuns. For those well meaning monks waiting for the Thai Council of Elders to decide on the legitimacy of Theravada Bhikkhunis, they will need to wait forever. The Thai Council of Elders is not legally entitled to rule on matters beyond its remit.
As the Late Somdet Phra Pootajarn, the then acting leader of the Thai Council of Elders, told me in 2009 regarding the question of Bhikkhuni ordination “Thai law does not extend beyond Thailand”. In essence, a Sangha in Thailand cannot rule on the proceedings of a Sangha in Sri Lanka, nor in Australia.
Indeed, the Buddha established that all Sanghakamma (monastic acts), such as the ordination of Bhikkhunis, are to be decided on by the local monastic community, defined as those monks or nuns within the same monastic boundary. Decisions or opinions of other monastic communities are not binding. Governance of the Sangha is devolved to each monastic community. This is the ruling of the Lord Buddha.
2. However, each monastic community is bound to act within the rules called the Vinaya. So are these rules an obstacle to Bhikkhuni Ordination?
The Thai Sangharaja’s 1928 ruling judged that a bhikkhu Sangha cannot give ordination to a bhikkhuni, because one needs other bhikkhunis to ordain a bhikkhuni. This is a moot point. In a recent publication “The Revival of the Bhikkhuni Order and the Decline of the Sasana” by the renowned scholar monk Bhikkhu Analayo (Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 20, 2013), the author argues that such an ordination is valid. In short, he argues that at first the Lord Buddha gave the bhikkhus authority to ordain bhikkhunis. Later, the Buddha gave authority for bhikkhunis to be ordained by a dual ordination ceremony; first in a Sangha of bhikkhunis and then in a Sangha of bhikkhus.
However, in contrast with the history of the bhikkhu ordination, where one finds that whenever a new ordination is allowed by the Lord Buddha then the previous method is immediately abolished, the original ordination of bhikkhunis by bhikkhus was not abolished by the Lord Buddha.
It is a general principle of Theravada Buddhism “Not to abolish what has been authorized by the Buddha” (one of the seven causes for the longevity of the Buddhist religion, Anguttara Nikaya 7.23, Digha Nikaya 16). This, then, is a strong argument for the legitimacy of ordination of bhikkhunis by bhikkhus alone.
It is generally regarded that the first bhikkhuni ordination of modern times was that which occurred in 1998 in Bodh Gaya. This was a dual ordination performed first by Chinese bhikkhunis following the “Dharmagupta” Vinaya and then by an international Theravada Sangha of bhikkhus. Was this legitimate?
There are four, and only four, ways that an ordination may be judged illegitimate:
- 1. Simavipatti: when there is a monk or nun within the monastic boundary who should be present but is absent.
- 2. Parisavipatti: when there is not an adequate quorum.
- 3. Vatthuvipatti: (for ordinations) when the candidate is disqualified from ordination such as being underage.
- 4. Kammavacavipatti: when the procedure is chanted incorrectly, e.g. an ordination ceremony being chanted without a motion and three announcements.
In regard to the Bodh Gaya ordination, there is no doubt that:
- 1. All the monks and nuns within the monastic boundary were present,
- 3. The candidates were well qualified, and
- 4. The procedure was chanted correctly.
But was there a quorum? May Mahayana bhikkhunis qualify as a quorum?
There are no reasonable grounds to suspect that the Chinese Mahayana nuns who performed the Bodh Gaya ordination are not legitimate bhikkhunis. The records show that their lineage came from Sri Lanka. Their own ordination procedure does not fail for any of the four reasons given above. They perform the ceremony with all present within a boundary (which they call a “platform”). There is always a quorum. They ensure that the candidate is qualified. And the ceremony is enacted by the same motion and three announcements as in Theravada, albeit chanted in Chinese. They are bhikkhunis according to the Vinaya and so can ordain other bhikkhunis.
But what about a quorum of one sect (Mahayana) ordaining nuns of another sect (Theravada)?
Sects in Buddhism
The different sects of Theravada are called nanasamvasa in the Vinaya. They are separate communities each performing their own acts of governance (sanghakamma), even within the same monastic boundary. The Vinaya states that there are only two origins of separate communities (nanasamvasabhumi):
- A monk decides for himself to belong to a community separate from others, or
- The Sangha forces a monk out of their community by enacting the severe penalty of Ukkhepaniyakamma by a motion and three announcements.
The second cause for a separate community is not used these days. This leaves only the first, that of personal choice. Put simply, according to Vinaya, a monk may choose to perform Sanghakamma with any group of monks he feels comfortable with. There is no legal impediment preventing a Theravada bhikkhu from performing a Sanghakamma with a Mahayana bhikksu. Indeed, it may be accurately said that there are no Theravada or Mahayana bhikkhus, there are just bhikkhus, according to the Vinaya, who happen to follow Theravada customs or Mahayana practices. Thus, a monk ordained in a Theravada ceremony may join a Mahayana monastery without needing to be re-ordained.
Thus, according to the Vinaya, Mahayana bhikkhunis may perform the first part of the ordination ceremony for a new bhikkhuni, and then she may take the second part of the dual ordination in a gathering of Theravada bhikkhus. This is what happened in Bodh Gaya. There is no reasonable argument based on the Vinaya to invalidate this. And what sect to those bhikkhunis ordained at Bodh Gaya belong to? They choose!
The Perth Bhikkhuni Ordination in 2009
Once there were Theravada bhikkhunis, it was relatively easy to arrange for the ordination of four women as bhikkhunis in Perth in October 2009. Even though it caused some trouble at the time, the bhikkhunis that were ordained are now recognized by all as bhikkhunis according to the Vinaya. As the old saying goes: “One cannot make an omelette without cracking eggs”.
The Bhikkhuni Sangha is growing. In Perth, the Dhammasara Nuns Monastery currently has 11 members of the Sangha with a waiting list of women from around the world wanting to ordain. Recently, a Thai TV channel visited Dhammasara and interviewed the bhikkhunis. In Thailand there are around 100 bhikkhunis (Murray Hunter, ANU, 2/1/2014) and in Sri Lanka around 800 bhikkhunis (The Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka, 3 March 2013). They may not be respected by all monks but they are becoming ever more respected by the lay Buddhist community, especially in Western countries. The Perth bhikkhunis are giving talks and teaching meditation. They are taking their place in the fourfold assembly of Buddhism as the Lord Buddha wanted. They are getting ample support.
The Need for the Current Leadership of Theravada to Embrace Bhikkhuni Ordination
It may be of interest to Thai monks to know that the Preceptor (pavattini) at the Perth Bhikkhuni ordination, Ayya Tathhaaloka, had visited Ajahn Maha Boowa at Wat Bahn That in Udon before the Perth Bhikkhuni ordination. Ajahn Maha Boowa invited her to stay in the female quarters overnight, and gave her ordination recognition by inviting her up onto the monks’ platform and then addressing her as a bhikkhuni, in front of the Sangha together with the assembled laity.
Many influential leaders in Thailand respect Ajahn Maha Boowa to such an extent that this incident may encourage other senior monks to accept the existence of Theravada bhikkhunis in Thailand. Such acceptance by Buddhist monk leaders will result in greater respect for the status of bhikkhunis among the lay Buddhist followers. Then those women will be empowered to lead in many other areas for the benefit and progress of their nation.
The Relevance of Bhikkhuni Ordination for the Third Millennium Development Goal
In a recently published paper by Emma Tomalin and Caroline Starkey (Sakyadhita newsletter, Winter 2012), the authors explored the role that Buddhism in Thailand and Cambodia plays in maintaining gender disparity in education and, “ultimately ask what is the relationship between the reassertion of women’s traditional ordination rights and female empowerment through education?” They noted that “Several scholars, both Thai and Western, have implicated Buddhism as one explanatory factor for the historical inequality between genders, particularly in the poorest areas.” Also that “Many advocates of the bhikkhuni ordination consider that that there is a direct relationship between the low status of women in many Buddhist traditions and the inferior status of women within Buddhist societies.
Thus, 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.
Ajahn Brahm, Perth, January 2014
A Christian group at Bristol University in England is being investigated for its discriminatory policies. Women are banned from teaching at their weekly meetings without their husbands beside them. The email from their president said:
“We understand that this [women teaching] is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our CU:Equip meetings [its principal weekly meeting], as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away or as our main speaker for mission weeks.”
The email goes on to say that women may teach at these meetings, as long as it it with their husbands.
It is fantastic that these discriminatory policies are being dealt with at last. The sad thing is, of course, that similar discriminatory policies are being practiced in Buddhism. From Amaravati’s notorious “Five Points” of discrimination against women:
2. In line with this, leadership in ritual situations where there are both bhikkhus and siladhara–such as giving the anumodana [blessings to the lay community] or precepts, leading the chanting or giving a talk–is presumed to rest with the senior bhikkhu present. He may invite a siladhara to lead; if this becomes a regular invitation it does not imply a new standard of shared leadership.
The full list is on Leigh Brasington’s site. He’s added a variation to the list that was created some time ago, where “monk” and “nun” are replaced by “Whites” and “Blacks”. There are more variations here. The alternate wordings create a stark and disturbing impression, as if the original was not creepy enough.
We can only hope that Buddhist groups realize the harm that these policies create and change them before they are forced to do so by the law.
It’s now a year and a half since Ajahn Brahm and Bodhinyana monastery were excommunicated from their monastic circle, Wat Pa Pong, for disobeying orders by ordaining women in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.
Has anything got better?
Short answer: not so you’d notice.
Ajahn Brahm has been in discussions with some of the WPP Ajahns overseas, trying to arrange a forgiveness ceremony, to let go and move ahead. He is clear that neither he nor his Sangha are interested to rejoin Wat Pa Pong. They do, however, want WPP to stop the active campaign of cutting Ajahn Brahm and his monks out of communion, requiring that Ajahn Brahm’s monks effectively disown him as a teacher if they stay in a WPP monastery, and so on. After several discussions where such a move seemed hopeful, suddenly the word came from the WPP Ajahns: ‘It’s not time yet’.
I wasn’t aware there was a right time for forgiveness.
Having just spent a few weeks in Bodhinyana, when these issues were discussed regularly, I can confirm that there is a lot of pain and disappointment at WPP’s actions among both the lay and ordained communities. In speaking with Ajahn Brahm, however, I never heard him do anything other than seek for a way to resolve the conflict. There was no criticism, no sign of ill-will, only the question: ‘How do we get over this?’
Meanwhile, a serious situation of conflict at the branch monastery in Wellington, New Zealand has arisen. A little background is in order. The monastery was established around the same time as Bodhinyana in Perth, and by coincidence they chose a similar name, Bodhinyanarama (after Ajahn Chah’s Pali name). Bodhinyana was established by inviting monks from Thailand. However, Bodhinyanarama was established with monks from England, and hence they have always been part of the ‘Amaravati circle’. Like Bodhinyana, however, Bodhinyanarama was set up by a pre-existing Buddhist society operating as a charitable association, the Wellington Theravada Buddhist Association (WTBA), which purchased the land, developed the monastery, and holds the title.
Bodhiyanarama enjoyed its glory days early on, under the leadership of Ajahn Viradhammo, when it expanded to become a sizable and thriving monastery. Since he left it has dwindled, and for many years now has rarely housed more than one or two monks. Bhikkhunis are not welcome.
Now, Ajahn Tiradhammo, the current abbot, wishes to change the legal basis of the organization. He wishes to change the constitution of the charitable association, with its open membership and democratically elected committee, and replace it with a model under which the stewards are appointed by the sangha and the abbot is appointed from Wat Pa Pong and Amaravati, and the WPP monks who make up the ‘resident Sangha’ will appoint a committee of lay trustees to handle the financials. All control is taken away from the locals, and the WPP Sangha can effectively insulate itself.
As I have shown at length in previous posts, such an arrangement is neither Vinaya nor Thai custom.
There are no abbots in the Vinaya – there is not even a word for ‘abbot’. The Sangha is, not a self-defined organization that excludes others, but the universal Sangha of the ‘Four Quarters’. Short of schism, there are no grounds in Vinaya for a group of monks to set themselves up in this sort of exclusive way.
In Thailand, the abbot is traditionally chosen through consultation between the resident Sangha, the local lay community, and a representative of the Sangha administration. (The Sangha administration is involved because under Thai law the monastery law belongs to the Sangha as constituted under the Sangha Act, and so the authorities have a legal duty of care. This, of course, does not apply in the case of monasteries overseas.)
What is the argument for this change? As best as I can make out, the argument is that the current WTBA constitution does not give any guaranteed ‘rights’ to the monastic community, including things such as decisions regarding what to build, or what monastics can stay. Things have been merely workable under a tacit agreement between the Sangha and the lay committee. Of course it is reasonable for the monastic Sangha to have a say in what happens in the monastery, and for this to be reflected in a constitution. It is quite possible to do this in a way that still gives the local lay community a say. It’s just a matter of balance. Certainly this is no justification for handing the entire monastery over to people overseas, especially when there is no guarantee that monks will actually be sent.
Having failed to persuade the committee, Ajahn Tiradhammo resorted to branch stacking at the AGM held on June 12. He secretly organized for a number of new people to come expressly to support him, and coached them before the meeting, hoping to make them members of a new committee. However, on a technicality they were not able to become voting members for the AGM and the previous committee was largely re-elected.
(Curiously enough, a similar manouver was attempted by the notorious New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) at an AGM of the Australian Sangha Association a few years ago. On the eve of the AGM we got a flood of membership applications from every NKT member in Australia. Under the ASA constitution, however, the NKT members do not have a recognized ordination, so are legally unable to become members.)
Accounts of the meeting are highly emotional. Many people present were very upset by the way this was done, and what they saw as the open manipulation of democratic processes happening in their Dhamma hall.
A strong letter of complaint has been sent to Ajahn Tiradhammo and several of the western WPP Ajahns. There have been allegations that the proposed revision is illegal under New Zealand trust law. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.
What exactly is going on here? The rules of Wat Pa Pong remain: discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns. Since the majority of devotees reject these principles, they have been kept secret as far as possible; however this is no longer possible. The only way to ensure survival is to gain absolute power over the considerable wealth and property invested in the monasteries.
We shouldn’t be surprised. The Ajahns have been telling us these things for years. Equality, democracy, rights: according to the clear, often repeated, and explicit teachings of senior Wat Pa Pong Ajahns, these things are alien, ‘Western’ values irrelevant to the Dhamma and of no value for liberation. What we are now seeing is simply these principles put into practice.
WPP faces a choice. Will they continue to endorse these principles? Or will they begin the difficult process of reflection and change?
There is a storm coming, make no mistake. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it will come. The senior teachers are passing away, and so the spiritual center of gravity that has held the Wat Pa Pong tradition together is dissipating. There are those within WPP who believe that discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns are the heart of the Buddhist monastic tradition. And there are those within WPP who believe that these are corruptions that defile the true Buddhist tradition.
Can these very different viewpoints be reconciled? Of course! There’s no great secret: recognize the problem, accept that it needs to be overcome, and work with commitment to overcome it. Since even the first of these is a long way off, however, I’m not holding my breath.
One by one, each of the Wat Pa Pong branch monasteries will have to decide where it stands. Whether it is to be an instrument of Thai Buddhist colonialism, or a source of spiritual vitality in its own land. The moral question is a no-brainer. The hard part is how to make it work.
Here’s an article that expresses the ‘other side’. It gives a straightforward argument in favor of sexism, and bases that on Buddhist ideas. Of course, I disagree with almost all the good author’s views, but I appreciate the fact that he’s confident enough to express himself clearly and openly.
Nevertheless, the doctrine he expresses is frightening: since domination of females by males is a fact, this is how it should be. This kind of thinking, though rarely expressed with honesty, lies behind many of the attitudes towards women that have been exposed in the rejection of bhikkhunis.
The author makes the surprisingly common error of thinking that ethical ‘equality’ means equality in fact. He says, ‘It is obvious to anyone with even an average level of insight and knowledge that males and females have differences physically, emotionally, mentally, behaviourally and societally.’ Yes it is. Likewise, old people are different from young, black are different from white, tall are different from short, and intelligent are different from stupid. People are different, and differences need to be taken into account.
But this has nothing to do with the ethical principle of equality, which means equal opportunity, equal treatment, and equal respect. Women are not lesser beings than men.
Try this: read the article below, and where it says ‘men’ read ‘whites’, and where it says ‘women’ read ‘blacks’. There’s no swifter way of cutting through the cruft of discriminatory argument.
The author trots out the usual criticisms of the ‘West’, apparently oblivious to the fact that many of the things he praises about Asian society – that women have equal access to education, voting, work opportunities – came about through the influence of ‘Western’ ideals of equality.
He says that women in Asia ‘choose’ to be dominated by men. I just received an email the other day from Sister Yeshe, working in India, who has been explaining to the young men there that it’s wrong to hit women. I wonder what happens to the women who ‘choose’ not to be beaten?
One of his basic arguments is that both the West and Asia discriminate, but the Asians are more honest about it. He’s wrong: people all over the world recognize that there is discrimination, and some, whether Asian or Western (or African or whatever), understand that this is harmful. It is the way it is, but not the way it should be. The Buddha taught an ‘ought’: he wanted us to do what is right, not what everyone else is doing. To use the Buddhist slogan of ‘the way it is’ to justify harmful social norms is a perversion of the Dhamma – one which, sadly enough, is not limited to the present article.
I especially love his arguments from animal behavior – now that’s an ethical precedent! If animals do it, it must be Dhamma! Imagine the possibilities…
GARUDHAMMAS – THE GENDER DYNAMIC 1
Men and women are not equal. This is what most people, especially in the West, have trouble grasping especially due to their cultural background and heritage. So when they approach an Eastern tradition like Buddhism and come across something like the Garudhamma rules instituted by the Lord Buddha, they instantly react against it. Although this is understandable, it is never wise or skilful.
The Garudhamma rules were first given by the Lord Buddha to Maha-Pajapati Gotami on admission to the Order as the first female bhikkhuni (higher ordained nun) with the establishment of the female Sangha. These 8 sacred rules were given as a part of her higher ordination and also became part of the female monastic Vinaya rules for all bhikkhunis (Buddhist nuns), starting with Maha-Pajapati Gotami as the first nun. Even though the rules were formally given to Maha-Pajapati Gotami, it is understood that it applies to all bhikkhunis and it is even clear from the way they are worded, “A nun should…”. These eight rules are only there for bhikkhunis and not for bhikkhus (Buddhist monks). This inequality is what upsets some, especially those from the West.
It is true that an inequality is there. However it is also true that men and women, whether one likes to accept it or not, are not equal. This is why this inequality exists in the rules. It is the inability to grasp and accept this basic truth regarding the inequality between men and women that has given rise to this whole debate over whether the Garudhammas should or should not exist in the Dhamma, whether they were or were not instituted by the Lord Buddha and whether sections of the Tipitaka are authentic or not, especially in relation to the Garudhammas. This inability to see, grasp and understand that significant differences exist between men and women and that therefore they are not equal, goes to the heart and root of this whole debate and issue. So it makes sense to try and understand these differences and to also accept and come to terms with them.
It is obvious to anyone with even an average level of insight and knowledge that males and females have differences physically, emotionally, mentally, behaviourally and societally. The physical differences are obvious. It is also a well-known fact that the kinds and levels of hormones (the main ones being testosterone in men and oestrogen in women) that activate inside the body affecting emotions, mood, etc. are different in men and women. These in turn differently affect thinking, behaviour and impact on attributes significant to mental training such as energy, confidence, etc.
The differences between men and women in society, in the East or West, are even more significant. The 2010 Catalyst U.S. Women in Business report found that only 2.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women!2 This is in the USA, a Western society that purports to be egalitarian (equal) in every aspect when it comes to women. It becomes clear from this single example alone, of which there are many, that even in the West, which constantly talks about gender equality, there isn’t much equality in reality. So it is fair to say that even Western societies are male dominated, even though most would not wish to acknowledge it due to factors such as ‘political correctness’ and the laws of the land.
Eastern cultures are openly male dominated by contrast and make no attempts to hide this fact. In Buddhist countries in the East such as Sri Lanka, women enjoy the same levels of equality as enjoyed by women in the West with equal access to education, work opportunities, health care, etc. However being an openly male dominated society, it is understood and accepted that in the family home and in society that the males play a dominant role while the females play a supportive role to the male. This also prevalent in Western societies, even though it is politically incorrect and even against the law to openly state it.
Being male dominated does not in any way refer to the mistreatment of women by men as happens in some societies through subjugation, torture, sexual mistreatment, etc. In a male dominated society both women and women understand the nature of their relationship and live in that way by choice, seeing the advantages in it, rather than by force. Women are treated with dignity and respect and their wishes are respected at all times. It is important to make this distinction clear.
Historically most societies such as the Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese were male dominated. However some especially in the West, attempted to adopt egalitarianism (gender equality).3 The West maybe egalitarian ‘on paper,’ but not in reality. So gender-egalitarianism, the view that males and females can ever be equal, contradicts reality, the way thing really are, in short it contradicts the Dhamma, as is evident in both the East as well as the West. So in reality most Eastern and Western societies are still male dominated, but only the East is willing to openly acknowledge it.
In the Bahudhatuka Sutta, the Lord Buddha says that only a male may become a Sammasambuddha, Wheel-turning Monarch, Sakka, Mara or Brahma thus: “It is impossible, it cannot happen that a woman could be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One (Sammasambuddha) … a Wheelâturning Monarch… that a woman could occupy the position of Sakka … Mara … Brahma – there is no such possibility (while in the form of a woman, however through rebirth as a male it is possible). It is possible that a man might be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One … a Wheel-turning Monarch… that a man might occupy the position of Sakka … Mara … Brahma â there is such a possibility.”4
Going beyond the these other realms and even looking at the animal realm this gender imbalance again becomes evident among most mammalian species, viz. “Female-biased dominance occurs rarely in mammals, and it is only observed consistently in hyenas and lemurs.”5 A questions that arises is, among lions for example where the males are dominant, what would would happen if females tried to be equal or dominant to the males? Would it create harmony or disharmony in the group of lions? The same question can be applied to other areas such as the Sangha and the family unit.
It is true that the concentrated or enlightened mind on its own is above gender distinctions. But it must be remembered this is following enlightenment, not before where gender where gender is very much relevant. To gain concentration (samadhi) and then enlightenment (Nibbana), one must first be established virtue (sila). This is where the Garudhamma rules have their place. They were instituted by the Lord Buddha first for Maha-Pajapati Gotami and then other bhikkhunis as a way of restraining gender specific unskilful qualities from arising that would compromise their and others’ training, affecting concentration (samadhi) and thus also enlightenment (Nibbana). Here gender specific unskilful qualities refers to the female desire to be on par with or even higher than males. This directly contradicts the reality of the inequality that exists between males and females. So the Garudhamma rules were instituted out of compassion for bhikkhunis, understanding the differences between genders, and not to degrade or subjugate females as some have misunderstood.
The Lord Buddha being full enlightened was fully aware of the gender differences, would have instituted these rules only for female also out of pragmatic reasons and thinking of the harmony of the Sangha community. A fully Self Enlightened One does not discriminate but acts pragmatically for the benefit and welfare of all. He would have understood the universal nature of this gender dynamic, that the males are dominant is every aspect, physically, emotionally, mentally, societally in most societies and even across other realms such as the Diving and animal realms. He would have also understood that if he did not institutionalise a set of rules such as the Garudhammas, that some would attempt to bring gender egalitarianism to the Sangha, as was attempted in Western societies. This would contradict the prevalent reality (Dhamma) of the gender dynamic and would thus create disharmony in the Sangha. As he foresaw 2600 years ago when he instituted the sacred Garudhamma rules, isn’t this very thing happening today in the Sangha community with various attempts at removing the Garudhamma rules in preference for ‘modern’ (and misguided) gender-egalitarianism?
May the true Dhamma remain uncorrupted and last for 10,000 years for the benefit of present and future generations. May you gain the wisdom and strength protect it from all present and future threats!
1. Please contact the author to obtain the latest version of this document.
2. See New U.S. Women in Business Statistics Released by Catalyst here http://www.womenonbusiness.com/new-us-women-in-business-statistics-released-by-catalyst/ and here http://www.catalyst.org/publication/132/us-women-in-business
Percentage of women in the U.S. labor force: 46.3%
Percentage of women in management, professional and related occupations: 50.6%
Percentage of female Fortune 500 corporate officers: 15.4%
Percentage of female Fortune 500 board seats: 14.8%
Percentage of female Fortune 500 top earners: 6.7%
Percentage of female Fortune 500 CEOs: 2.4%
4. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Majjihma Nikaya, Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, pp 929.
Here’s one of the most notorious Suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya (AN 5.230).
Monks, there are these five dangers of a black snake. What five? It is aggressive, bears grudges, has terrible poison, is fork-tongued, and betrays friends.
Just so, monks, there are five dangers of a woman. What five? She is aggressive, bears grudges, has terrible poison, is fork-tongued, and betrays friends. Herein, monks, a woman’s terrible poison is this – generally, a woman has keen lust. A woman’s forked tongue is this – generally, a woman uses back-biting speech. A woman’s betrayal of friends is this – generally, a woman commits adultery.
And no, I don’t think this was really spoken by the Buddha. Deal with it.
What I’m interested in is to subject this text to the same elementary standard that the Buddha himself insisted on, and that we would apply to any other truth claims: does it stack up against the evidence? I assume it doesn’t, but I’d like to see the proof. Does anyone know of any objective, empirically based psychological studies that statistically examine possible gender differences between men and women in these traits?
Obviously, such psychological traits are heavily conditioned by culture, and it is impossible for us to do empirical research in the context the Sutta was formed. But by examining – and hopefully critiquing – these claims in contemporary cultures, we can at least challenge their universality.
Here’s a few studies to get us started.
In the case of aggression, gender differences are well known, although these refer more to aggressive behavior than aggressive psychological tendencies, which is what the word kodha in the above Sutta means.
As far as bearing grudges goes, I haven’t found any studies, but in this discussion thread men and women share their experiences, and it seems pretty much balanced: both men and women sometimes have problems bearing grudges, sometimes not.
As for sexual desire, this study claims that: “All the evidence we have reviewed points toward the conclusion that men desire sex more than women… We did not find a single study, on any of nearly a dozen different measures, that found women had a stronger sex drive than men.”
Regarding backbiting, or negative gossip generally, this article (while the overall tenor is to criticize gender-based conclusions) cites an article with at least some gender-based differences – women tend to gossip more, although there is little difference in the ethical quality of the gossip; while this article suggests that men and women gossip around the same amount.
Over to you. Remember the rules of the game: referenced, empirical studies please, not anecdotes or opinions. (They are welcome in other posts, though!)