Sunday, July 1, 2012

The New Bhikkhunis

     When I was a junior monk studying the rules of monastic discipline the rules concerning bhikkhunis, or fully ordained Theravada Buddhist nuns, were attended to but not studied much, as it was common knowledge among my Asian teachers that the Bhikkhuni Order had become extinct hundreds of years ago, so the rules concerning them were purely academic. At the uposatha ceremony conducted on every full moon day and new moon day it is ancient tradition for the Sangha to acknowledge a designated monk's "exhortation" (Dhamma talk) to the bhikkhunis; and it is a common practice at monasteries throughout Burma simply to announce as part of the preliminaries to the ceremony, "There are no more bhikkhunis." In fact, I've been told more than once by Burmese monks that the only way the Bhikkhuni Order could possibly be revived would be for at least five fully ordained monks to spontaneously, instantaneously be transformed into women, as they would then be fully ordained nuns; if the transformation were gradual, like by surgery, it would be invalid, as a eunuch (castrated man) cannot be a monk, much less a nun, so any interval of time between complete man and complete woman would break the validity of the status of ordination. And five would be needed because any new nuns must be ordained by a Sangha of at least five fully ordained bhikkhunis---if the necessary five do not exist, the lineage is broken. This is what I was told, matter-of-factly, for years.
     So it was a bit of a surprise last year, just a few months before I returned to America, when an Australian fellow told me about how the famous Ajahn Brahmavamso in Australia had become infamous by unilaterally taking upon himself the authority of Gotama Buddha and ordaining some new bhikkhunis. He had been censured by the Thai ecclesiastical council and by the abbots of other monasteries in the Ajahn Chah tradition, but he had refused to back down and had been essentially ostracized for what was considered to be an ecclesiastically illegal act. Monks who lived at his monastery were banned from staying at any other monastery in the same tradition, so most of the Sangha there bailed out to avoid the stigma. Or at least this is what I was told by that Australian fellow.
     Then a few months ago, during a return visit to Burma, I heard a little more about the issue, and looked into a book of articles written on the subject of reviving the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the title of which I no longer remember. It seems that Ajahn Brahm wasn't the first, but that some monks in Sri Lanka started participating in bhikkhuni ordinations quite a few years ago. The book had a few articles attempting to explain the standard objections to modern bhikkhuni ordination, but it was in order to refute these objections, as the book was decidedly in favor of the idea, mainly, it seems, because of the politically correct issue of Gender Equality.
     Before going any further I would like to assure one and all that I have no objection to the idea of gender equality. I consider women to be different from men but equal to them, especially in the realm of spirituality. It may even be that spiritually women have a slight advantage over men in general. I can't really say for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised. But this whole issue and controversy concerning bhikkhuni ordination strikes me as a case of Western Enlightened Political Correctness losing touch with practicality.
     First of all, for the sake of gender equality efforts are being made to revive an Order which according to the Pali texts is necessarily to be discriminated against, and thus would not have gender equality. For example, according to the rules of monastic discipline any nun, regardless of her seniority, is required to pay respect to any monk, even though he may have been ordained that very same day. Thus any nun is automatically lower in precedence than any monk. Also, the rules in general are stricter for nuns than for monks (for example, there are four pārājika rules for monks, the breaking of any one of which entails immediate excommunication from the Sangha, while there are eight of them for nuns); and even the ordination ceremony for bhikkhunis, if done according to the book, requires them to answer several rather embarrassing questions concerning their private parts that bhikkhus are not required to answer. Consequently, the only way bhikkhunis will have equality with bhikkhus is by changing the ancient rules, which nobody really has the authority to do, or by breaking the rules, which is a strange way of reviving a tradition---not exactly starting the tradition "purely," on the right foot, it seems to me. Changing the rules is precisely what was suggested by that book I was looking at, but I'm sure that would go over in the Sanghas of Theravada Buddhist countries like a lead balloon.
     Which brings up another difficulty: In order for there to be a major change in the ecclesiastical status quo there must be unanimous consent of the Sangha, or at least the agreement of  a representative sample of the Sangha---and the overwhelming majority of the Sangha consists of conservative Asian types who no doubt would be very reluctant to make such a change. According to the Pali text, the Buddha himself considered bhikkhuni ordination to be a bad idea; and although Western scholars may doubt the authenticity of the passage (found in the Chapter on Bhikkhunis in the Vinaya Cūḷavagga), traditional Asian Buddhists tend to be psychologically incapable of doubting the legitimacy of their sacred scriptures, and will likely see the aforementioned Westerners as arrogant troublemakers flouting the teachings of Buddha. In fact I was told recently that it is more difficult for Western men to be ordained as monks in Thailand nowadays as a result of the Thai monks' reaction to "illegal" ordination of women in the West.
     Of course one reason why the Order of Bhikkhunis became extinct in the first place is because the rules were so off-puttingly strict and discriminatory; although there were some practical reasons for this. In addition to the standard explanation that desire between monks and nuns within a community leads to problems, there is also the fact that Indian women often are obligated to marry men that they do not love, and in some cases have never even met. This resulted in many unhappy marriages in ancient India, and many women fled into a convent to escape an unhappy home situation. One reason why the rules of discipline are so hard on nuns is to weed out those women who did not have a true spiritual calling and were merely using the nun's life as an easy way of escaping an obnoxious husband. (There is also a rule stating that any married woman must be married for at least 12 years before she may be ordained, which I suppose gives her time to perform her "wifely duties" and possibly reconcile herself to married life before bailing out.) Things are very different for modern Western women, but changing ancient rules in the most orthodox, unchanging school of Buddhism is bound to lead to problems, possibly even to schism.
     As I see it, there is absolutely nothing preventing any group of women from designing any set of rules they please, dressing however they please, calling themselves whatever they please, and seeking enlightenment however they think is best. They could design a system specifically for the modern West, which no doubt would work better than more or less illegally modifying an ancient Indian version which never was well suited to women anyway. It seems that the only thing that prevents this is a desire for the security of Official Status. That really seems to be the crux of it. And Official Status is essentially a worldly phenomenon which has no bearing on Enlightenment.
     Women could design from scratch a system as strict and austere as they saw fit, and although they would not be technically ordained bhikkhunis, it would have almost no practical effect on their life of renunciation as far as the Sangha is concerned, as ordained women and unordained ones do not get treated very differently by monks---in fact unordained ones would seem to be treated a little more respectfully.
     I have to admit that my Official Status as an ordained bhikkhu certainly has its advantages in Asia; in Burma I'm a Mahathera ("Great Elder") and the abbot of a forest monastery there. But here in America it doesn't seem to count for much. People don't care much if I'm a Mahathera, or if I was ordained this way or that way. So long as a group of nuns agrees to a code of mutual respect for, say, seniority within the system, possibly with a non-canonical, unofficial recognition from the Asian Sangha, then it would seem to be the obvious solution---so long as there is no need for worldly Official Status as fully ordained bhikkhunis. 
     I have considered that something similar could be done for men also, here in the West---establishing a kind of unofficial quasi-monkhood more adapted to Western society, as rules based on the ancient Ganges Valley do not seem to fit the culture very well. It could be a new subsystem endorsed by the Bhikkhu Sangha, or not. It wouldn't be exactly Theravada though, more like Navakavada; not the Doctrine of the Elders, but the Doctrine of the Juniors, the Newcomers. It would not be schismatic however, as the new Sanghas would not technically be ordained at all. (Lest anyone suspect that I'm planning to become an unofficial quasi-monk, I assure you I'm not.)
     On the other hand, if modern women really insist on being officially, fully ordained bhikkhunis, then it seems that one prerequisite for this goal to be fully realized would be a Western-style Political Correctness propaganda media blitz throughout the Theravada Buddhist countries in Asia, for the purpose of changing the traditional way of thinking over there. It is feasible I suppose, if enough rich sponsors feel strongly enough about enlightening the Buddhist countries to get behind it. There does seem to be a certain audacity, even arrogance, to the idea of us worldly Westerners trying to enlighten the monks of a much more spiritually-oriented cultural system though. Oh well! We are what we are. Sometimes wisdom comes from the mouth of babes, or in this case, newcomers.
     I've never actually met a modern bhikkhuni, but from what I have heard they are very sincere, and are conscientiously striving on the Path to Enlightenment. The courage to go against the grain as they have helps to ensure this. I have no desire to discourage them or anyone else from striving for Enlightenment, or from renunciation. This sort of thing is what will save the world. However, I would point out that Waking Up is not a matter of what in Theravada is called sīlabbata-parāmāsa, adherence to rules and observances; and insisting upon the Official Status of ordination in a system which would have to be overhauled to be acceptable anyhow seems to be a pretty clear case of this kind of adherence. It really is not necessary. Or anyway, that is my opinion.
     May nuns, monks, laypeople, and all beings be well in body, peaceful in mind, and Free.

A "theela shin," or traditional Burmese Buddhist nun, in meditation


  1. Very good points, Venerable Sir. I've always thought that the purpose of Sangha is more about keeping Dhamma and Vinaya than personal liberation. Considering many opportunities to practice Dhamma in well-known meditation centers as laity with ten-precepts, there seems to be little point in ordination as Bhikkhunis if it requires altering Vinaya.

    I believe one of the arguments is that only Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni can attain Arahantship in Theravada, which spells the need for ordination. If I remember correctly, there is no limitation imposed on lay person regarding enlightenment except no lay-Arahant can remain in loka for more than 10 days; which, in my opinion, is not a drawback considering the incomparable Santi Sukha of Parinibbana. King Sudhodanna, Bāhiya and the story of Bramin couple in Dhammapada Verse 225 come to mind.

    I have no discrimination toward Bhikkhunis. I should also mention that I don't have enough knowledge of Vinaya to judge whether new Bhikkhuni ordination is Dhamma or Adhamma. If it agrees with Vinaya, I will happily welcome new Bhikkhunis Sangha with the same respect as Bhikkhu.

    Much respect and Metta.

  2. I was heartened to observe in Sri Lanka the respect shown to Bhikkhuni by men. The movement to revive the order of female monks has made greater headway there than anywhere else (meaning none in Myanmar and haltingly if determinedly in Thailand).

    (Mrs.) Amalie A. Aseltine in Yangon