Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cultural Clash And Buddhist Nuns

A friend sent me this article written by Steven Evans, a former monk and a long time resident in Thailand. I find it sensible and balanced and so I decided to share it with you. I take issue with Steven’s statement that there would be no Buddhism without the Thai Sangha (what about the Sri Lankan and the Burmese Sangha?) but this is a small point. But I certainly endorse his conclusion – do what’s best for the development of a Western Buddhism and let traditional Asian Buddhists work on their own issues.

All the attention given to the women’s ordination-Achan Brahm-Wat Nong Pa Pong fracas, but especially the tenor of the attention, is getting a bit irritating. At the very least, the spectacle of rank new-comers to a 25 hundred year old tradition, or if you prefer, 13 hundred or so in Thailand, bashing its caretakers and transmitters, without whom there would be no tradition for us to be newcomers to, because they fail to conform to our own very modern, very Western, ideals, leaves a bad taste. Don’t get me wrong. I am very much in favor of full ordination for women—on an equal basis with men (which, of course, will require some creative reinterpretation of the garukadhamma), and I am excited about the ordination at the center of the controversy. The burning issue, however, should not be the injustice of severing Achan Brahm’s official ties to Wat Nong Pa etc., but how to proceed with building a Western Sangha in a way that remains true to the tradition even as adapting, even radically altering it for the West. From that perspective, indeed, the “excommunication” of Achan Brahm and his monasery is a gift. He, at least, and those who are with him, need no longer worry themselves over the approval or disapproval of the Thai Sangha. But that is what all this is about. There has been no excommunication. No one has been forced to disrobe or barred from the pursuit of nibbana. What has happened, rather, is that the Thai hierarchy has distanced itself decisively from an act that it is not ready to condone. Don’t be fooled. Whether or not the monks at Wat Nong Pa genuinely want to take the punitive actions they have been taking, the hierarchy is leaning on them, to the extent necessary forcing them, to do so. Take proprietary control of “Thai” monasteries abroad run by Western monks? That’s the hierarchy speaking, even if it is presented as a request by Wat Nong Pa. And if the monks refused to comply (I’m not saying that they would refuse, I don’t know that, only supposing if), they would risk their monastery losing its legal status, its lands appropriated, the monks expelled.
We need to understand first of all, that the Thai Sangha is not a democracy, nor a loose federation of monasteries and monks, or whatever ideal form we may have read (rightly or wrongly) into the Vinaya. It is a rigid, tightly controlled hierarchy, modeled, quite explicitly, on a combination of monarchy and military dictatorship. For the hierarchy to remain silent in the face of a forbidden act at a monastery and with the approval of a monk that might be considered part of the hierarchy would imply tacit approval, and, at best, that the chain of command had with impunity been breached, at worst, turned on its head. It would imply condoning not only women’s ordination, but also crass insubordination. Better, from their point of view, to make it clear that the monk and monastery are not part of the hierarchy.You will retort that insubordination is precisely in order here, that the chain of command should, must, be breached, turned on its head. I’m very much inclined to agree, but does not insubordination by definition come from within? Achan Brahm should have sponsored the ordinations. The Thai hierarchy was perfectly, if disappointingly, within its rights in dissociating from him and his monastery. But what about demanding property rights to “Thai” monasteries abroad? Or else... what? Or else you are not under the Thai hierarchy. So be it.
It’s time Western monasteries were on their own. (When the Thai Sangha re-established Buddhism in Sri Lanka a couple hundred plus years ago, how long did the Sri Lankan’s continue under Thai sovereignty? When will the Thai’s start demanding that Sri Lankan monasteries built with Thai help be returned to Thai ownership as punishment for ordaining women?) But there is something deeper at work here. All the hand wringing over the Thai reaction strikes me as culturally blind. To the extent that they are paying attention, and I’m not aware that they are, it must strike the Thais as a demand that they begin ordaining women forthwith. Silence, again, implies approval, approval in a rigid hierarchy is capitulation: let the ordinations begin! But from within Thai life and culture, the male-only Sangha makes perfect sense (bear with me). This is a largely matriarchal society, perhaps excepting, for example, the Chinese minority, and the Sangha as a men’s only club makes sense as an escape from female domination, and as a compensation for the day-to-day humiliation men suffer at their wives’ hands. Lay men can, and do, point to the Sangha as the proof of men’s superiority even as they do their wives’ bidding, much as they threaten a return to the wholly imaginary good old days when a wife was her husband’s slave with no rights whatsoever. That those days are imaginary is borne out by what survives of some early Thai popular literature. Here’s how it works: the wives do all the thinking and planning and organizing, while the men sit around drinking—and sneaking off and whoring—waiting for their wives’ orders, “Plow!” “Plant!” “Harvest!” “Buy!” “Sell!”, with which they generally and meekly comply. Now, none of this is to deny the horrible problems with abusive, even murderous, husbands. To be fair, there are abusive and murderous wives as well, I’ve seen women beat their husbands in public. But the men more often get away with it: the law is largely in the hands of males glad to get back at females. It’s much more complicated than this, of course. The point is simply that to project modern Western ideals of gender equality into Thai society and to insist that Thai institutions conform to those ideals makes no sense whatsoever.
But doesn’t banning women’s ordination at least symbolically ban women from nibbana? No Thai I have ever queried (including monks) believes that only monks can achieve nibbana, and there are probably more Thai women than monks meditating seriously and hoping for enlightenment. But there is more. Thai monasteries cannot simply start ordaining women—some would if they could—not only because of the Sangha hierarchy, but because the Sangha, as are the Christian and Islamic hierarchies (the law requires a hierarchy), is under the direct supervision and control of the state. Women’s ordination is thus a national, secular political and legal issue, as much it is as a religious issue, and Thailand, you may have noticed, is in the midst of much more pressing political and legal issues just now. You will no doubt have noticed that Thais do not hesitate to march in the streets (or occupy government house, shut down the airport, shut down Bangkok) to demand change. The country is currently in a state of near paralysis as a result of these opposed factions making demands. And women’s ordination does not figure in those demands. There have been no marches demanding women’s ordination. There is no movement for it to speak of, though there are women’s movements for women’s safety, a much larger concern. I suspect that one thing that is operative on the Thai side is resistance to imperialism. It seems that every time you allow Westies to become involved, they begin redefining and redesigning and restructuring everything according to their own (obviously better) understanding. A Western man subordinates himself to the Thai Sangha, accepts Thai ordination and gaining the trust of the Thai Sangha, becomes a well-known teacher of Thai Buddhism and abbot of a monastery in the Thai tradition—then bodily drags that tradition into something that is totally foreign and contrary, at least on the surface. Forces a crisis (and such it is). This feels like a breach of trust; or like imperialism. Remember that Thailand was never colonized, and is proud of that heritage. Not that Thailand is anti-west or anti-modern, but it has adopted and adapted Western ways at its own pace and volition, picking and choosing as it would. It will continue to do so, to work out its own destiny, to be sure, in engagement with the West, as with Chinese civilization, and Indian and Islamic civilizations, but it will not be dragged, kicking and screaming into anything. Women’s ordination? It’s coming.
Ten years ago I said to a very senior monk that Thai bhikkhuni ordinations would be routine within 20 years. Five, he retorted, believing he and others could make it happen. He’s behind schedule, but it is coming, just a bit of awkwardness getting over all the years of refusal. But this: they will not be dragged into it, or allow even the slightest appearance of bowing to imperialist pressure. Thus the expulsion of Achan Brahm etc. Thus, relax, move on into the new world of an independent Western Sangha—remember our Thai progenitors and revere them as appropriate, but do what seems best for the new Western Sangha and let the Thai’s work through their own crises.


Alessandro S. said...

Regarding the eight Garudhammas, I would like to have the Ven. Dhammika's opinion concerning these two thesis: the first,
is by Ajahn Analayo who notes: «A close inspection of the account of the foundation of the order of nuns brings to light several inconsistencies. As already noticed by other scholars, the eight special rules [...] could only have been formulated at a time when nuns were already in existence.Some canonical passages do in fact refer to the ehi bhikkuni type of ordination for nuns, indicating that in the earliest stages of the history of the Buddhist order nuns were ordained with this simple formula, instead of the procedure referred to in the eight special rules.

«Another problem is a chronological one, a problem that to my knowledge so far has not been noticed by other scholars. According to what can be gleaned from the relevant sources, the foundation of the order of nuns would have taken place in the 5th or 6th year of the Buddha's ministry. A closer examination of the canonical sources brings to light that at this early point of time Ananda still had to become the Buddha's attendant, in fact he still had to ordain. This makes it impossible for him to act as an intermediary in the way his role is depicted in the different Vinayas.»

And the second is by Mettanando Bhikkhu:
«The nature of the First Council in Rajagaha was not what it has been claimed, i.e., to canonize the words of the Buddha for the prevention of the future corruption and decay of the Buddhist religion, but it was to suppress the nuns who were active and successful in their promotion of Buddhism.


«The members of the First Council, although honored as saints, were faithful followers of Brahmanical Laws than Buddhist mendicants who had been dissatisfied with the administration of the Buddha that women were allowed to be ordained equal to men. Thus, the real intention of the First Council was not for the preservation and protection of the Buddha’s teachings as claimed by the tradition, but to marginalize the nuns.»

I could hardly believe he really meant to say this, however I have a recording of his speech on the International Congress on Buddhist Women and his biography is indeed impressive, at least from the academical point of view. What does Bhante thinks concerning the eight Garudhammas as instructions actually laid down by the Buddha himself?

Sujato said...

Dear Ven,

In response to this long letter I would make two major criticisms.

First, there is no evidence that the Thai hierarchy has been behind the opposition to bhikkhuni ordination. The only official response from the Mahatherasamakhom to date is to note the delisting of Bodhinyana as a branch monastery of WPP. All the other acts we have witnessed, including visiting Somdet Buddhajahn, calling Ajahn Brahm to Thailand, issuing various statements in opposition, expulsion, the Dec 28 press conference, the Dhammalight website, punitive actions against participants, calls for Bodhinyana to be given to WPP, and secret attempts to turn the Perth Thai community against Ajahn Brahm, have originated solely on the initiative of monks from WPP. I have never seen or heard of any suggestion that there has been any overt or covert attempt by the Mahatherasamakhom or other entities in the Thai hierarchy to influence WPP.

Second, this article ignores the role played by the Western monks. The opposition to the ordination originated from the Western Ajahns following the meeting between Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Sumedho, and up till now some of the most aggressive actions have been taken by Western monks on their own initiative. This is not to say that all Western monks have behaved like this; most have not, but some have. On the other hand, many Thai monks are very supportive of bhikkhuni ordination. It is not an issue of Thailand vs. the West. The serious problem is that some Western Ajahns of the best established order of Forest monks have aligned themselves with the most conservative forces of Thai Buddhism. This is a radical shift of great significance for the future of the Sangha outside Thailand, and it needs to be aired and discussed publicly.

I agree that the Thai community has other things to worry about right now – don’t they always? But if not for the concerted opposition initiated and carried through by certain Western and Thai Ajahns of WPP, I don’t think the Mahatherasamakhom would have done anything. Even now they haven’t done anything; that’s their nature. Dr Nidhi suggested that the Thai Sangha have lost a great chance by not simply sitting back and observing the response to the ordination. I agree, and I still believe that if it were not for the aggressive campaign by WPP, the Thai Sangha would have done no more than issue a few ‘tut-tuts’ (if that much) and declared that the matter was ‘under consideration’.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Alessandro,
Ven Analiyo’s thesis seems quite plausible to me. Ven. Mettanando’s quite implausible. I do not believe there was any conscious conspiracy to keep the nuns down. Your own thesis is an interesting one. The main problem with it is that the chronology in the Sutta Pitaka is uncertain and sometimes confused. The example you give is only one of many. Hears another one for you. We are told Sariputta died some time before the Buddha and that the news of this was given to Ananda and the Buddha at Savatthi. But in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta we have the Buddha and Sariputta in dialogue. The commentary notices this problem and tries (unconvincingly)to solve the problem by saying that the Buddha broke his final journey, nipped 600 kilometers over to Savatthi to receive news of Sariputta’s death, nipped 600 k. back to Vesali, and continued his trek to Kusinara. Ven. Analiyo could have gone further and said what most scholars know, that much of the Vinaya dates from after the Buddha. The fact that the Vinaya contains an account of the First Council which took place aprox 100 years after the Buddha, demonstrates that it was still ‘open’(i.e. having things added to it) at that time. Thus the may well have evolved after t drawn up after the Buddha and then attributed to him. However, even if the garudhammas were taught by the Buddha this does not mean that we should thereby adhere to them. As has been pointed out many times before, the Buddha said that minor rules can be changed if necessary (D.II,154). What is less well-known is that in the Vinaya he is attributed with saying that the rules can even be changed if the king wanted them changed (Vin.I,137). Good God! What more does one need to see that rules of administration and etiquette (as opposed to rules dealing with morality), are not and were never meant to be absolutes. The garudhammas are now out of date and out of keeping with accepted norms and should be put aside. I will have more to say on this issue next month when I begin posting my book The Broken Buddha. Look out for it.

Ranger said...

Interesting that you are not aware of why bhikkhunis are not ordained in Thailand, and why those who were originally were not taken seriously.

While male chauvinism may well exist in Thailand, it is not the reason. The reason being basic female nature, which appears to be so obvious for some yet a source of mystery for others.

Women are ruled by the moon, if you haven't noticed, thus their physical presence is strongly affected each month for a good part of their lives. This distraction makes it impossible to develop fully in meditation and realize nirvana.

The nature of the female mind is dynamic rather than static, thus giving rise to qualities of heat (necessary for nurturing young) and fluctuation, which makes strong samadhi impossible.

The static nature of the male mind is more suitable for samadhi for those who develop it.

This does not mean that women are inferior in any way, just that they have different natures and are more suited to other things.

Some will perhaps mention the literature on Female Arahants, however, like many other religious literature such things are simply stories.

People tend to overlook the fact that if such beings only existed in stories and not regularly throughout history then they only belong to fiction.

It is usually not a subject discussed openly, for the obvious reason that half the population on the planet wouldn't buy it to begin with, and no one would like to become that unpopular.

However, as everyone can benefit from meditation and following the teachings of The Buddha, regardless of gender, it is not such a large issue, as most males don't realize nirvana anyway.

For those who perhaps may take offence at such an explanation, then they are quite free to prove The Buddha, and the Thai Sangha, wrong in their understanding of the basic natures of genders.

artim said...

1 Dear Bhante you make reference to an article by one Steven Evans but have not provided your readers a link to it nor provided us the

date it was written. Most of us here have put this matter behind us now, the ordination afterall took place in October.

2 I looked up 'excommunication' on and it means "to exclude or expel from membership or participation in any group,

association, etc.: an advertiser excommunicated from a newspaper." This being the case the word has been used quite correctly to describe

the Thai decision to exclude Bodhinyana as part of their linage.

3 How is it possible for anyone to assert that an ordination carried out in Australia is not "letting traditional Asian Buddhists work on

their own issues"? The Buddha did not appoint a pope and each person and each monastery is free to seek the utter freedom espoused by

Buddha Himself. Even if the Thai sangha is not a democratic system and it was against Thai law - the overriding fact is the ordination was

not conducted in Thailand.

4 The assertion that Thailand is a matriachal society confounds me. I looked up "Matriarchy" on wikipedia and Thailand did not come up and

so I looked up "Thailand" and there was no mention of Matriarchy there either. I think Bangkok conjures up many images of women (pls don't

try googling this!), but not of the matriachal variety I assure you. Yes there may be some past history of matriachy or perhaps it is

prevalent in some parts of Thailand, but it seems like an extraordinary stretch of logic to regard Thai society as generally matriachal.

5 Since you are an Australian in Singapore and I am an ex-Singaporean in Australia, let me assure you that we at the Buddhist Society of

Western Australia do indeed look at the excommunication as a gift. We are simply minding our own business.It is perfectly ok for the Thai

Sangha to excommunicate whoever they wish - but to then setup a specific website and on it claim the excommunicated monastery as belonging

exclusively to Thais makes it clear which party is meddling and being imperialistic. By the way; Happy Australia Day on Tuesday - oi oi


6 Bhante allow me to quote from your latest blog ('Where the Buddha walked'): "It’s interesting firstly because it’s not your usual Indian

effort (badly organized, full of factual errors, atrocious English, links that lead nowhere, etc)." This statement seems to be a better

example of an imperialistic attitude.

7 Thank-you for your tacit support of the Perth ordination.

Jake Mitra, Perth

Alessandro S. said...

Thank you, Bhante. I'm looking forward reading yours "The Broken Buddha".

Tazzie said...

Hey Ranger, nice analysis of the female side of things. Just a couple of points though...
First one, its probably a missapprehension to believe that"strong samadhi"(whatever that is) alone equates to, or somehow pre orders the attainment of
nirvana. Now if your referring
to samma samadhi, then the last time I checked, the path leading to Nirvana included seven other factors that needed to be cultivated as a whole.Samma Ditthi, probably the only one that could take precedance. Don't worry though, your not alone in this view, cos there are buddhists, (male and female alike) who should know better, seem to have overlooked this as well. Some Monks and Nunns too!
Second point, I would estimate that any committed female buddhist has infinately more chance of attaining nirvana in this lifetime than, lets say any of the world's 3 billion or so non buddhist males who seem to be exempt from all those pesky lunar cycles and such that you talk of. of course this is just my analysis of the situation! Anyhow, welcome to the discussion and thaks for your comments.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Artim,
These details were not provided to you because they were not provided by my correspondent to me. However, I assume Steven Evans wrote the article recently.

Not imperialism, just good-natured teasing.

artim said...

Dear Ranger

The arguments presented are similar to the ones made when the right for women to vote was being debated only about a century ago.

The fear was that if you allowed women to vote then it could one day lead to women becoming MP's, ministers of even Prime Ministers. And God save us all should a woman become PM with PMS!

The 'abnormality' of women is obvious to those who cannot see the obvious problems of having high levels of testosterone. Is it not obvious that men have had trouble managing rage and lust which we would attribute to testosterone? Are male aggression and lust not impediments to meditation?

It is not just women who are sensitive to lunar cycles. Research has shown that men are likely to become involved in violence in sync with lunar cycles (hence the term 'lunatic').

Modern research has also proven that men too have testosterone cycles. Here is one study from 2003:

But even if we were to leave that aside we should consider that the Buddha respected the lunar cycle. For example the recitation of the Patimokha and other Buddhist observation days are based on the lunar cycle.

(Of course the only reason for this may have been because it was the only method of keeping time, but I feel this is point worthy of consideration, because this is not something that is observed in most other religions.)

History, that is modern history, has shown several great women such Maragaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Madaleine Albright, Indira Ghandi and so on. Similarly the Buddhist texts have many women who had attained the highest levels of samadhi and enlightenment.

But more than historical names you need to meet a wise woman yourself to know that women are indeed equal to men. Indeed they are superior in some respects but things even out because men are superior in other areas.

But at the end of the day both men and women are human beings. It is only because of the extremely long history of male domination (because of physical superiority) that this is not clear to people even today.

The Buddha's audacity to ordain women was a major paradigm shift. Its like trying to convince people the world is not flat as it clearly appears to be.

Thank you for sharing your view. With warm regards.

Sujato said...

Dear Ven,

In your previous comment you gave a Vinaya reference; "in the Vinaya he is attributed with saying that the rules can even be changed if the king wanted them changed (Vin.I,137)" I've looked it up and it's not on this page (which is the first page of the Vassupanayikakkhandhaka) - can you help me locate this passage? Thanks.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ven,
Sorry for the error. The correct reference is Vin.I,138, where King Bimbisara asks the monks to postpone the vassa, they check with the Buddha who says they should acquiesce to the kings wishes and then adds, ‘I allow you to obey kings’. It seems in the beginning that anyone who asked was ordained but after some of Bimbisara’s soldiers became monks he mentioned to the Buddha that this might put the Sangha at odds with the government and that government servants not be ordained; the Buddha then made a rule to that affect, Vin.I,74. Vin.I,112 also, and several other places, gives incidents where rules can be modified or amended to avoid problems with the king.

Ranger said...

As for Western Therevada Buddhism in general, disregarding those who have included it as a form of therapy into their own academic psychological view of the mind in order to make money from it and sell books on Amazon, then it hardly exists.

Sure, there is the Sunday School version of Buddhism with a lot of people actually believing the exact words of The Buddha supposedly remembered for 300 years before being written down in a language he never spoke, and there are a few places here and there where meditation is not sold at up to $1,000 per day from supposed teachers who should be given ecclesiastical titles of ‘The Clueless’ for their new-age ramblings, but compared to Asia there isn’t a great deal of anything of value.

The general view in the West appears to be that they don’t need to ask some Bhante in Asia about spirituality as they have their own ideas. Fair enough, but it would be foolish to regard all Bhantes as write offs, even though some of them may be such, because some of them also happen to be Arahants (and The Buddha himself was one of these Bhantes).

The Western idea of give me something I can buy, entertain me with stories, and let’s all be equal is simply due to the dust in their eyes (ignorance).

While not introducing bhikkhuni ordination may seem unjust, you also have to realize that rules or policies alone do not determine reality, and just as an adept musician would not be deterred by being overlooked just because she was female, female meditators would also rise to the top if such things were possible. However, if one’s basic nature makes something impossible then the idea of equality also becomes meaningless.

As for the proffered list of great women, there is a danger of confusing fame with greatness, as the women mentioned were actually quite dreadful people, involved in the killing of innocents at various times in their political careers, not to mention being extremely selfish.

We don’t have to look very far to find great women, as most of our mothers could be regarded as such.

As pointed out, there are other components in the realization of nirvana besides samadhi, but unless Sila, Samadhi, and Pannya are developed to high levels then even the first path becomes an impossibility. Therefore, while some components may be admirably furnished, samadhi remains a weakness.

True, many people are lunatics; the gravitational effect of the moon influences those who have strong attachment to their body, which in turn influences their mind.

In the case of skilled meditators they use this effect to be free of their bodies, usually at dawn of full moon, when those who become Arahants enter nirvana completely.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Wow! Thanks Ranger for such a lively, feisty ‘give-it-to-em-on-the jaw’comment. I had to read it several times to take in all the points you made. But while Buddhism in Asia is by no means all bad, then surely Buddhism in the West is not all bad either. One of the advantages it does have is being able to start from scratch. This means that some pioneers might end up taking dead ends but I’m confident some will find the right path and cut a way through to the Goal.

Ranger said...

Yes, it would not be too unreasonable to think that within a few generations some high-level Buddhist leaders begin to emerge in the West, particularly those who have spent time as members of The Sangha in previous lives, and perhaps had the opportunity to hang around some enlightened beings as Devas (this may sound fanciful to some but nature works in strange ways).

So who knows, it may even be a former nun/bhikkhuni who takes the honors.

Barry said...

Dear Ven
Thanks for your (in my humble opinion) no-nonsense, unambiguous, enlightened perspective on all this nonsense.

Being a long-term (20+yrs) resident of Thailand, being married to a Thai lady for 28 yrs...and practicing for the past quarter century (mostly a solitary practice derived from the WPP tradition), AND, having read your Broken Buddha.......I REMOVED THE ROSE-COLOURED SPECS A LONG TIME AGO, DELIVERED SLAP TO OWN FACE...and told self to wake-up STUPID!!

With metta
Barry Hoben
Pattaya, Thailand.

Robin said...

Reading about this controversy (which I just found out about; there are advantages to living in the woods) reminds me of something Zen teacher Kyogen Carlson once wrote. He said Buddhism is really all about accepting that nobody knows, and that we're not meant to. He said, "To hold an honest doubt is to first say to oneself 'I could be wrong,' and then, secondly, to admit that 'They could be wrong, too.' " The point is, you can't get hung up on these things, to make them obstacles to practising the Buddha's teachings.

I'm consistently amazed how few Buddhists take that fundamental point to heart, that Buddhism isn't for some future perfect time, but for right now, in this world, uncertainties and imperfections intact. The situation you're addressing might just evaporate if they did, as would the political issues and turf wars currently dogging my own Zen tradition. What weak and miserable things to abandon our Buddist precepts for. The world is big enough for a monastery with female priests and another without. (Don't get me started on the Zen issues!)

Thanks for the blog!

(By the way, anyone interested in the Kyogen teaching will find it here: .

Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit