Part II – Bhikkhuni Dhammananda Interview

The first part of the interview is HERE 

In Venerable Dhammananda’s Dhammananda’s talk we asked her to choose her own topic – part of the reason for this is everywhere she goes, she is hikacked on to this one solitary topic of ordination of women in Thailand. With her breadth of knowledge and experience it is a shame to always be cornered into the one issue. I mentioned this to her, but with typical poise she said “It’s only natural for the topic to arise, so I don’t mind… “

In Hamburg, Germany this year there was a conference called by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the topic of Bhikkhuni ordination. In the Tibetan system, there are Samaneris, women novices, but no fully ordained nuns. In the Chinese lineage there are full Bhikkhunis. The main problem of ordaining women for the Tibetan and Theravada systems is that the candidates must be ordained by both a full forum of Monks, and then also a forum of Bhikkhunis. Since there are no more Bhikkhunis recognized other than in the Chinese system, no new candidates can receive proper ordination. The conference was designed to address this issue, and explore the options for introducing full Bhikkhuni ordination.

Q.: What were the results of the recent conference in Germany on the ordination of women?

VEN DH. : His Holiness [Dalai Lama] always wanted to ordain women in his tradition, which comes from the Mula-Sarvastivada tradition [one of the 18+ schools of Buddhism that existed a few hundred years after the Buddha’s time]. He wanted to air the issue out amongst the public and see what they had to say you know … so they invited 70 scholars, monks and nuns who are expert in Vinaya – they are not interested in any other issues, only vinaya [Monks and Nuns Rules of Conduct]. They knew they wanted to give women full ordination, but wanted to investigate how they could do it. So they got some very good papers from specialists, including Bhikkhu Bodhi.

So we had the meeting, all the senior monks and Bhikkhunis of all the traditions so they could plan out a proposal for His Holiness who was to join us on the third day. So we proposed that the existing Western nuns who had already been ordained in the Tibetan tradition, but also fully ordained by the Chinese tradition. So first of all we have to make the adjustment to recognize that they were ordained in the Mula-Sarvastivada (Tibetan) lineage, and not just the Dharmagupta (Chinese lineage). Then when they are considered to be fully ordained by the Tibetan monks, they can arrange for the new ordinations of women [ who must be ordained by both the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sangha ] So that was our proposal.

But at the moment His Holiness wants those nuns to perform the official Bhikkhuni acts only as Dharmagupta nuns – You know the panel were all silent, so it was up to me to stick out my head and ask why not let them perform the functions as Mula-Sarvastivada nuns. If you only recognize their acts as Dharmagupta nuns, what is the point? There has been no progress! Because they are doing that already. In order for them to start giving ordination to Tibetan lineage women, you have to recognize them in the Mula-Sarvastivada.

Q. : So the meeting was about giving women ordination in the Tibetan lineage, not the Theravada ?

VEN DH. : Yes. That was the intention of the conference. But there were many of us there, and we were of course thinking about our own ordination. Bhikkhu Bodhi was also talking about the Theravada situation, as was Ven Sujato representing the Australian Sangha; the Australian Sangha came out fully in support of Bhikkhuni ordination.

Q. In all traditions?

VEN DH : In Theravada. Especially as the Australina monks – Ven Sujato and Ven Brahmavamso were ordained in Thailand, so they were really talking about the situation in Thailand.

His Holiness also invited the Western Bhikkhunis to go to Dharamsala to help with the Tibetan nuns there. This will happen next winter.

Q: So the issue of the ordination of Bhikkhunis seems to be advancing more in the West…

VEN DH. : The problem in the West is there is no unified Sangha. It is very important to have a solid Sangha when making changes. Particularly for the Bhikkhunis – they are not all living together. Only if they are together will there be progress. It is also essential for training – so that the nuns can advise each other … you are not wearing your robe properly … The monks are not going to tell you you are dressing very sloppily. I had to live with my teacher for two years but my mother was in her 90s. So I had to invite my teacher [preceptor] to come from Sri Lanka and live with us here. At 4 am in the morning I had to go and serve her because she would be meditating … I was so blessed having a good teacher. She was very polite, very compassionate. She did not speak English when  I was first ordained with her, but she was forced to learn for me and an Australian disciple who was there too. Now she speaks good English.

Q : Some of the women in our group here have asked if it is possible to go and study and practise in your temple ….

VEN DH : Sure any time

Q: Are there other English speakers, other than yourself?

VEN DH:  All of us speak English. So international … We have only 3 other ordained nuns, and they are all well educated and can speak English well enough.

Q: And for the visitors – they join in the regular activities ? That is Morning and evening chanting … meditation … helping with the chores …

VEN DH: Yes like that. Mediation is twice a day communally. Otherwise they will be on their own … As for the jobs in the temple it is up to them what they would like to help with. They can come anytime, there are no closed times …

Q:  Do you have any organized retreats there?

VEN DH: Yes, the closest one is in December. They are 3 days usually, because the working women cannot take more than 3 days. We arrange for times when there is a holiday on the Friday or Monday, so they are 3 or 4 times a year.

Q: Keep us informed about those, and I will let our members know. What kind of meditation practise do you do in the temple?

VEN DH: It depends on what kind of practise they have been doing before. We are not forcing them to do something different – unless they want to try something new. We do Luang Phor Sodh style practise, but simplified a little. And also Anapanasati [mindfulness of breathing]. One of our Bhikkhunis, she can teach Luang Phor Tien method [hand movement].

Q: The Thai monks abroad tend to stay in amongst the Thai circles only, but you have moved much more amongst the Western Buddhists. What is your impression of Western Buddhism? Is it working well?

VEN DH: I think the understanding of Buddhism is much more in depth in the west, compared with the traditional Buddhist countries – which I call ‘Buddhist by birth, Buddhist by chance’, where you are Buddhist by choice. Westerners go around and shop around and finally make the choice to be Buddhist. When you are thrown into it by birth it is difficult to see the value of it, hard to really appreciate. So I will not be surprised if in the end Buddhism is greater in the West. Here you know, we have the beautiful temples, but not all the people are practicing Buddhism properly.

Q: Do you think though that there is a difference between the mental understanding and the heart understanding – because I have seen with Westerners that there is a good intellectual understanding and study basis, but with the Asian the understanding is more from the heart.

VEN DH: The Western people, when it comes to the actual living Buddhism, in the details … then … some local people who might not know anything much up here [the head] but in their lifestyle – they have integrated Buddhism in their way of life. Like with dana [Generosity] – if you talk about dana in the West it is a big big thing, but here with the Thai people, even the very poor they will bring something. Sometimes I am almost in tears when I go out on almsround. I cannot imagine how people can have such big hearts when they are so poor. People ask why we don’t go out for almsround every day – but they are so poor … I change the route each week because it is enough that they offer pindapada once a week. It is so very touching.

Q: I have not been in the West myself for a long time, but I imagine that there are a lot of different forms of Buddhism, from different countries. Are they harmonious? Are they coalescing into one, or maintaining their own traditions ?

VEN DH: I think that if you are true to the spirit of Buddhism, it does not matter if things are done a little differently. If I come to your temple and you do things a little differently, well then I will do as you do, and there will not be any problems. But if you hold on to ‘my way is the only way ..’ then there will be a problem.

Q: Do you think there is a Western Yana developing? A Western ‘School’ ?

VEN DH: I think that in the U.S. they should have their own Sangha, and not take everything from the Thai culture. They don’t need to take all the Thai culture, but just take the Buddhist elements, and develop into an American Buddhist culture.

Q: Two final questions – we will be doing some workshops and presentations on Buddhism and Psychology in the near future. So two questions:

Is Buddhism helpful to psychology?  And…

Is Psychology helpful to Buddhism ?

VEN DH. Both yes. Psychology comes from theory, theory that comes from observation. Buddhism has already been in touch with the very core of existence. So if psychologists study that they will really come to know the root of what it means to be a human being. In that sense Buddhism and Psychology will be complimentary.

I think to be wise, we as Buddhists should also study psychology – to see what is the structure, what are the theories … maybe we already have all that but we don’t know how to arrange it and talk about it … how to put the understanding we have into boxes and arrange it. So I think to know both is beneficial to us.

Q: I have noticed that many monks are not skilled as counselors, even though it is a big part of their role in society. They have never been taught how to give counseling.

VEN DH: Yes, they are not trained in listening meditation…

Q: I have wondered if it might be a good idea to set up some simple programs to give some tools that can be used to improve the role as counselors, and ways to understand some of the mental disorders.

VEN DH: It can happen that the monks are so venerated that they get lost in their spiritual egos, in a kind of tunnel. We [ordained Sangha] are also seekers on the spiritual path so we need to be able to listen to the suffering of the people.

Q: Anything to add David ? Or to subtract …

DAVID HOLMES: Venerable Dhammananda has great wisdom, loving kindness and compassion, [turning around] and I feel so enriched just from listening to you speak.

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We talked to Venerable Dhammananda for almost an hour, and while the conversation is mostly transcribed above, I have to agree with David that it is enriching just to listen to her speaking. All the group here who met her later in the evening for her talk felt her to be inspiring. It is impossible to portray the warmth of Ven Dhammananda’s manner and tones in a text document, so we encourage all of you to go along to her temple and to come along to our meetings in Bangkok when she is next here.

Some details and directions to her temple here: https://littlebang.wordpress.com/links/wat-songdhamma-kalyani/

Everywoman UK tv show, with a section on Ven Dhammananda: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMnSK8Hp-gs

Some links to follow on the Conference in Hamburg: 

http://www.congress-on-buddhist-women.org/

http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/x/nav/eb_toc.html_1717379581.html

http://docs.google.com/View?docid=ddp92ffn_0f3s96c

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