Bhikkhuni Issue:

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.

What Happened

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.

Bhikkhunis

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.

Theravada/Mahayana

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.

Excommunication

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.

Blowing Over

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.

About Cittasamvaro

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26 Responses to Bhikkhuni Issue:

  1. Marcus says:

    Hi,

    “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.”

    Wonderful words. Thank you.

    My first reaction is, of course, to say “well done Ajarn Brahm!” at his decision to ordain women, ……. but it’s lovely to have all this context, thank you, and wonderful to see that – contrary to some far-fetched headlines I’ve seen recently – this is no schism!

    Thank you so much.

    Marcus

    • Cittasamvaro says:

      I don’t want to belabour the point – but he did not actually ‘ordain’ anyone. The other bhikkhunis did the ordination.

      This proceedure has happened lots of times, in lots of places. The only difference now is the issue is being more fully discussed and aired. And I guess some of the Bhikkhunis might be less likely to come to Thailand for a while – which is a shame as we have invited a number of them to talk for us.

  2. Marcus says:

    LOL! Wow – and there’s you putting it in bold too! Funny how you read enough headlines, you think you know what happened! Thanks again for the clarification! _/\_

  3. billzant says:

    Phra Pandit

    “4 practicing lay women 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.”

    Did the 4 lay women after ordaining with the Bhikkhunis present then go for “seal on the ordination” with Ajaan Brahm representing the Bhikkhu Sangha?

  4. Cittasamvaro says:

    The Bhikkhus section has a main preceptor, and two assistants who do the examination (are you a human, are you free from debt etc..) – as with Bhikkhu ordinations. As memory serves A. Brahm was one of the two.
    Of course, it all went down in his temple, so he cops for the criticism from his former temple group.

  5. billzant says:

    Dear Phra Pandit,

    Thanks very much for your comments on the Bhikkhuni ordination in Perth, as one who had asked you privately about this I was pleased to read it.

    There were some interesting comments by the Bhikkhunis (at the ordination I believe) as to how they had gained spiritually from ordination, and I have a clip (120Mb – collected from YouTube clips) of what they said:-

    [video src="http://zarendhara.com/Clips/Buddhism/Bhikkhuniordination.flv" /]

    Personally I had considered that I nominally followed the Forest Sangha having gained much help from Harnham Buddhist Monastery. I believe this issue might have some implications for England with its Forest Sangha monasteries – might require intending Bhikkhunis to visit Scotland? Is there any difference between Forest Sangha monasteries, the Wat Pa Phong Sangha and the Ajaan Chah tradition you speak of?

    With regards to the position of women I believe there are educational and cultural differences between England and Thailand and Australia. It appears that Ajaan Brahm and his monastery felt the need to be defiant concerning the issue. Is it true that Wat Pa Nanachat (international wat?) was setup by Ajaan Chah to promote the Dhamma in the west? If that is the case, how will this expulsion help with that?

    Hope you are keeping well,

    All the Best,

    BillZ

  6. Cittasamvaro says:

    I think the video you linked to was an old one of the conference they had on Bhikkhuni ordination in Aus. a couple of years back.
    Forest Tradition” does not really mean much. It is a description rather than any kind of title/header. Generally it refers to Ajahn Mun related forest temples … but many of those temples are now in the city due to urban sprawl. Ajahn Chah temples are not officially part of the Ajahn Mun lineage as they are Mahanikaya, not Dhammayut temples.
    The ‘Forest Temples’ tend to try and distinguish themselves from the decadent ‘Urban Temples’ as being superior on every level – practise, meditation etc.. These days however, there are actually lots of decadent forest temples, and excellent urban temples, so the distinction is not as valid as it once was.
    Wat Pa Phong tradition = Ajahn Chah tradition. They describe themselves as ‘Forest Lineage’.

    I really don’t think Ajahn Brahm felt any need to be defiant. The women in his temple were going to ordain as Bhikkhunis like it or not. He could send them off to do it elsewhere … but they were his follwers and were supported by the Perth Buddhist Society. He knew if he waited for the Abbots meeting of the Ajahn Chah temples he would be refused permission. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and did as his conscience told him.
    Remember, they would have ordained anyway. Ajahn Brahm could not have stopped that even if he wanted to.

    • truthdat says:

      Cittasamvaro: I think it is a misperception that the World Abbots Meeting is a decision making body and could have given “permission” for anything.
      It was decided in at least 2006 that the next WAM would be held at Bodhinyana. It has also been reported that Ajahn Brahm was going to discuss bhikkhuni ordination at the 2009 WAM, just like he had been talking about it for years. However this discussion was preempted by a Wat Pa Pong general meeting: “In June 2009 the Ajahn Chah Sangha at Wat Pa Pong reaffirmed its willingness to conform with the Thai Sangha governing council’s current position: that bhikkhuni ordination has ceased to exist and cannot be legitimately revived.”
      Why did this happen in June 2009 before the Dec 2009 WAM?
      The timeline implies that WPP “knew” this was a current issue and wanted to take care of it before there could be another group discussion.

  7. Cittasamvaro says:

    I just figured out what _/\_ means ! Doh ! I thought it was a wizards hat .

    (if you have not figured it out either I will let you do so on your own)

  8. Cittasamvaro says:

    Back to the point that the Bhikkhu sangha has a way of doing things that emphasises openness, willingness to conform and be admonished, harmony etc.. It is not something that really affects laypeople as it is a monastic protocol.
    This is why the wider Sangha was not supportive of the recent events; even those who fully support the Bhikkhunis (including myself).
    Bhikkhu Bodhi, a keen supporter of bringing pure Theravada Bhikkhunis back into the picture, revised his earlier support in the light of this :
    http://sujato.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/bhikkhu-bodhis-revised-response/

  9. billzant says:

    In a public statement on 1 Nov Wat Nong Pah Phong stated “the Sangha does not accept the act of ordaining Bhikkhunis on this occasion and holds it as void”.

    http://zarendhara.com/bzblog/WatNangPahPhongdecision.pdf

    What are the implications of this?

  10. Dhammalight says:

    There is some good factual evidence on the secretive way Ajahn Brahm proceeded about the ordination at:

    http://www.dhammalight.com

    • Cittasamvaro says:

      thanks, good resource. I hope the whole issue blows over though. Most public just see a case of sexism, without understanding the issues involved.

      Pandit Bhikkhu

      • truthdat says:

        I don’t think the secretive part of the story holds much water.
        Why did WPP in June 2009 decide that Bhikkhuni ordination was invalid months before the ordination ceremony and the 2009 WAM in Dec when it was supposed to be discussed?
        What is bizzare is the mix mash of official policy and opinion from this doc:
        http://www.dhammalight.com/official/pdf/The_Gathering_Elders_7-9_Dec_2009.pdf

        From the document we have:
        “In June 2009 the Ajahn Chah Sangha at Wat Pa Pong reaffirmed its willingness to conform with the Thai Sangha governing council’s current position: that bhikkhuni ordination has ceased to exist and cannot be legitimately revived.”
        contrast with:
        “The source of these feelings was not outright opposition to bhikkhuni ordination as such (in fact a number of our Western elders consider the arguments supporting its legitimacy to be well-founded), but the sense that the way the ordination had been arranged constituted a serious betrayal of trust.”

        The official stance as of June 2009 was that bhikkhuni ordination cannot exist but some of the “Western elders” think it might be possible? That is some disconnect.

  11. Cittasamvaro says:

    Yes, but by ‘The Sangha’ what is meant is the ‘Wat Pa Pong Sangha’, NOT the Thai Sangha as a whole. And the truth is, only a couple of monks within that group were pressing for the declaration that the ordination was invalid.
    None of the Western temples declared the ordination invalid – because it isn’t. This very proceedure, using both Theravada and Mahayana monks/nuns has been done lots of time before, just not in the WPP group.

  12. billzant says:

    Bhante,

    I understood that this meant the WPP Sangha.

    My apologies for pursuing this issue but I am interested in the implications of the institutional discipline. I understand that the WPP Sangha expelled Ajaan Brahm for breaking discipline and effectively going alone realising that the WPP Sangha would not sanction Bhikkhuni ordination – especially as the matter could have been formally raised in December.

    The statement I quoted says the WPP Sangha does not accept the act of ordination as valid in this case. Based on this I assumed, incorrectly from your reply?, that the affiliated monasteries, such as the UK Forest Sangha monasteries, would also be unable to accept the act of ordination as valid.

    Bodhinyana monastery broke ranks to perform the Ordination, yet Harnham for example, could, if they chose, recognise the ordination as valid even though the WPP Sangha, overarching body?, does not. This appears inconsistent, that’s why I am confused.

    Or is Harnham not what you mean by a western temple?

    “And the truth is, only a couple of monks within that group were pressing for the declaration that the ordination was invalid.”

    Does this really matter if the institution formally makes a statement, aren’t all the group bound by the statement?

    Hope you are keeping well,

    All the Best,

    BillZ

  13. Cittasamvaro says:

    “Declarations” are not what they are in the West. There are thousands of declarations by groups/leaders and the Sangha Council. How many times have monks been declared not allowed to visit Pantip Plaza ?
    The Western temples couldn’t start a Nuns vihara (temple) for instance, but that does not mean they would treat a visiting nun disrespectfully or regard her as not ordained.
    I would not say that the branches are particularly ‘bound’ by much.
    Thailand has a way of having one ‘official’ position, and another ‘reality’ position. Look at Bhikkhuni Dhammananda – no official status, but no one is arresting her or treating her as a ‘fake’ of any kind.

  14. billzant says:

    Bhante,

    Thanks.

    This clears a lot up for me with regards to institutional discipline.

    I had understood the matter with regard to some “Thai laws”, you are suggesting it is effectively the same for such declarations.

    Perhaps the importance of the declaration with regards to Ajaan Brahm and Bodhinyana could be considered in the same light. But then Bhikkhu Bodhi’s retraction as a reflection of general sentiment is perhaps more important, as well as your

    “This is why the wider Sangha was not supportive of the recent events; even those who fully support the Bhikkhunis (including myself).”

    Hope you are keeping well,

    All the Best,

    BillZ

  15. Cittasamvaro says:

    Just to show the picture is not all bleak for Bhikkhunis in Thailand here is one report by Brooke (who some of you met before) about a Bhikkhuni Temple in Chom Thong district, Chiang Mai:
    http://wanderingdhamma.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/bhikkhuni-meditation-center-in-chom-tong-chiangmai/

  16. Cittasamvaro says:

    There are a number of posts about Bhikkhunis in Littlebang – They are now listed by clicking here.

  17. Rebecca says:

    Sorry to have to correct you bhante but the new bhikkhunis in Australia were not ‘four practicing lay women’. They were 10 precept nuns wearing brown robes and the most senior, Ajahn Vayama was a student of Ayya Khema’s and has been ordained for at least 20 years. I don’t think it’s possible for a lay woman to become a bhikkhuni unless she has trained as a sikkhamana for at least two years. Maybe you could make this correction in your blog entry here as it may help to clear up some confusion for your readers that may result from them thinking that the nuns in question were unprepared for such a step.

    • Chris says:

      These four women were indeed 10 precept Dhamma practitioners with ‘Ajahn Vayama’ having completed 24 years of practice, ‘Sister Nirodha’ having completed 6 years of practice, ‘Sister Seri’ had completed 5 years of practice before Bhikkhuni ordination, and ‘Sister Hasapanna’ had completed 3 years as a Dhamma practitioner. All four of these women are members of the Dhammasara (womens) Monastery in the Perth, Western Australia area. Sister (now Bhikkhuni) Nirodha was instrumental in the establishment of the Santi Forest Monastery in Bundanoon, NSW, Australia.

  18. Cittasamvaro says:

    Thank you for the correction. Actually, all the focus had been on Ajahn Brahm so that I, like many, had not really looked at the ordainees. I have heard some of Ajahn Vayama’s dhamma talks in the past.

    • Rebecca says:

      Yes all the focus has gone to Aj. Brahm and the monks as usual, but no surprise there. In reality this is all about the nuns and making bhikkhuni ordination viable for them so that women have the smae conditions within which to practice as men do, just as the Buddha intended.

  19. pilgrim says:

    Seems to me the best way forward is to find some middle ground and reconcile. I understand that Aj Brahm has offered to apologise and make up. In response, the WPP sangha visited his preceptor who subsequently revoked Aj Brahm’s Upajjhaya status. What’s the thinking behind such intransigence?

  20. KS Lim says:

    What is more important? Practising wisdom and compassionate? Or following tradition blindly? Ajahn Brahm did a great job in this occasion, as he set his priority right.

Comments are closed.