First posted Nov 10, 2009
Reposted today to fill in the background since the issue of Bhikkhunis is relevant to our guest speaker on Tuesday
The last week has seen a spate of controversy coming from Australia, and the ordination of 4 Bhikkhunis. Hoping to stay out of it …. too many people have sent comments to leave the topic unmentioned here.
4 practicing lay women 10 precept nuns from Ajahn Brahm’s temple in Perth took ordination with several Bhikkhunis. According to tradition they first ‘go forth’ in ordination with the Bhikkhuni preceptor, and then go for a second ceremony with the Bhikkhu Sangha, which kind of puts its seal on the ordination.
Note that Ajahn Brahm, and the monks at the temple in Perth did not ‘perform’ the ordination. Nor did they ‘reintroduce’ Bhikkhuni ordination.
This sparked controversy, and Ajahn Brahm was called to Thailand to account for his actions – or more correctly for the actions performed in his temple.
Ajahn Brahm is part of the Ajahn Chah tradition, which has its own style and code of conduct. The heads of this grouping, cut Ajahn Brahm off their list – which means his temple is no longer a ‘branch temple’ of Ajahn Chah.
The Bhikkhuni ordination lineage is sometimes said to have died out. Since women can only be ordained by other Bhikkhunis, then it is not possible to restart the ordination line. This is actually complete nonesense. The Bhikkhuni line of ordination was maintained in the Mahayana (Dharmagupta) tradition – which traces its ordination back to the Buddha himself. And there are thousands and thousands of fully ordained Bhikkhunis to prove it. The ordination in Australia was preformed by several of these Bhikkhunis, so Sadhu! to the new nuns and best wishes to them.
In the Theravada tradition, the ordination of women died out. But Theravada was only one of the many Nikaya schools of Buddhism that arose in the centuries after the Buddha. Note that you ordain as a Bhikkhu or a Bhikkhuni only, and not as a ‘Theravada’ or ‘Mahayana’ monk or nun. So there is no reason for women not to ordain in the existing Bhikkhuni lineage if they wish – all suitable women can ordain and thousands do. The idea that women can’t ordain as nuns is frankly wrong, as the thousands of Bhikkhunis worldwide demonstrates.
When one is ordained, there is no restriction on what style of Buddhism you practise. Mahayana monks nuns are free to study and practise Theravada – in fact you don’t have to be ordained at all – anyone can study practise Theravada Buddhism. And the same goes for Mahayana. Many Thai monks go abroad to India/Nepal/Bhutan to practise. Thus there are a growing number of women ordained as Bhikkhunis, who practise in the style of Theravada Buddhism. No problem there.
As Ajahn Brahm repeatedly pointed out in his talk after the ordination, he sanctioned the ordination of 4 women as Bhikkhunis in the Buddhist lineage – not Theravadans or Mahayanists. He is not even the ‘first’ to do so in any way. The new Bhikkhuni’s preceptor Ayya Tataaloka for instance, was similarly ordained in the US, in a mixed Theravada/Mahayana Sangha. Ajahn Brahm might be the first in the small sub-group of Western temples in the Ajahn Chah tradition (totalling some 20 temples), but on the wider scale of things, this sub-group is very small.
Thai Sangha Elders Council
The position in Thailand on Bhikkhunis is somewhat dubious. Officially, the Supreme Patriarch declared that Bhikkhunis were not an official part of the ‘Sangha’. In fact, the laws in Thailand regarding the Sangha relate to the ‘Bhikkhu’ Sangha, and not to the ‘Bhikkhuni’ Sangha so the position is somewhat unsure.
What about ‘Mahayana’ Bhikkhunis ?
In fact the position is the same for both Mahayana Nuns as it is for Mahayana monks. It is just no one really bothered about the ‘official ‘status of Mahayana monks, because it simply is not really a problem. There are lots of religious sub-sects in Thailand that have no ‘official’ status. Christian monks, Islamic priests, Nichiren Buddhists, Korean Buddhists … there are hundreds of religious groups of real monks/nuns that have no ‘official’ status relating to the Thai Sangha.
This is why there are in fact a number of Bhikkhunis practising both Theravada and Mahayana styles of Buddhism in Thailand. Many Mahayana Bhikkhunis for instance, study degrees at the monk’s Mahachula. University.
In fact the Santi Asoke monks – also ordained Thai Buddhist monks, are not part of the official Thai sangha, yet thrive nonetheless. They really were excommunicated, but still continue as a religious group. Thailand does not have a problem with Mahayana Bhikkhunis – but is cautious when they look like Theravada monks, and take almsround etc.. in the way Thai monks might.
The media, always in need of a controversy, called the recent event an ‘excommunication’ which of course means that one is cast out of the religion (and condemned to hell). Silly.
The Ajahn Chah tradition, which probably totals about 200 temples worldwide, with 20+ branches run by Westerners, had discussed the issue of Bhikkhuni ordination and decided that they would follow the Thai Sangha Elders in not participating in such ordinations for the present. Maintaining the Thai connection is very important to the Western temples which are somewhat remote from their Thai roots. Since Ajahn Brahm went against this group decision, he was expelled from the group.
Just like McDonalds sells burgers in all its branches. If one franchise branch took to selling chinese food, it would no longer be a branch of McDonalds.
It does not mean that Ajahn Brahm, or any of his monks, were expelled from the Sangha. They are still official, real, and respected Buddhist monks – just not part of the Ajahn Chah sub-group.
Our own Little Bangkok Sangha is not a part of the Ajahn Chah Tradition either, and it is no problem. There is always respect.
So the Problem?
The Sangha does things as a group. There is a huge emphasis on group decisions, tradition, openness, and harmony. Lay people cannot really be aware of how strongly this is emphasised in the monastic circles, from the time of the Buddha. Ajahn Brahm emphasised this point several times in his talk after the ordination. He felt (perhaps with justification) that too many decisions were made by ‘Elders’ behind closed doors.
Yet this ordination was conducted in virtual secrecy. Even members of the Perth group were not told in advance. This is not how the Sangha of monks/nuns conducts its affairs.
Their justification was that if they had been open, they would have been prevented. But this is the whole point of the ‘harmony in the Sangha’ rules that are in the Vinaya. That the monks/nuns do not act out of accordance with each other. For instance, some temple might decide that jeans are better than robes when working outdoors – and they might well be right. But to act alone in changing the interpretation of the convention would be disharmonious.
This is why Ajahn Brahm was admonished, even by those who support the ordination of Bhikkhunis strongly. It is a monastic issue, that should not overly concern lay people.
Please do not be sucked in by the silly headlines. Ajahn Brahm and co., despite having been admonished by (some of) the Thai Sangha, are still official Buddhist monks. He is still a great teacher, an inspiration, and definitely one who has acted respectfully and sincerely with the best of intentions. It will make practically no difference if his temple is an official branch of Ajahn Chah tradition or not. It is still recognised by the Thai and worldwide Sangha as an exemplary temple.
He had been cornered in a difficult situation – of several women in his group wanting to ordain as Bhikkhunis. They could have gone abroad and taken ordination, but they were part of his group and he could hardly send them off elsewhere. The Ajahn Chah Sangha, particularly the Wesstern temples, were similarly duty bound to react in the way they have done, according to the way the Sangha operates.
In all, the issue will blow over pretty quickly. There are thousands of Bhikkhunis all over the world; which means there have been lots of ordinations in many countries, that have gone by without controversy. There is nothing particularly landmark or special about this case, other than an internal issue for the Ajahn Chah sub-group of temples. And even that will likely blow over without further issue.