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.