A Garland for the Bhikkhunis of Perth

A Garland for the Bhikkhunis of Perth

By Jacqueline Kramer

In the winter 2009 issue of Parabola magazine there is an article in which Bhikkhu Bodhi shares the story of his chance encounter with the first Buddhist monk to cross his path. As he watched the monk walk across the campus green, he was “struck with wonder and amazement at the sight of this serene, self-composed man, who radiated a lightness, inner contentment, and dignity I had never seen in any Westerner”.

He went on to write about a second chance encounter with this same monk a couple of years later. This chance encounter with the monk Thich Minh Chau was to be Bhikkhu Bodhi’s lovely and synchronistic first kiss of Buddhism that would waft gracefully in and out of his monastic career.

What sort of an impression is made on a young Thai boy watching a gentle monk with orange robes walking mindfully down a dusty street with his bowl in hand?

A young boy can see his future in the face of a well-practised monk, turning him towards Buddhism more quickly than a million wise words.

What about our girls? What would it mean for the future of a girl to have her heart touched by hearing a dhamma talk given by a mindful, empowered, female monastic? How would it affect a girl if she could pour her heart out in the loving, listening presence of a bhikkhuni?

How would it change a culture to have both female and male expressions of engaged enlightenment, equal in respect and power, as physical embodiments of the dhamma?

This question of equity is one which people of goodwill throughout the world are currently examining at every angle: political, social, educational, psychological, and religious.

In July 2009, the Elders Group, which includes Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and others, made the statement: “Religion and tradition are a great force for peace and progress around the world. However, we believe that the justification of discrimination against women and girls on the grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a higher authority, is unacceptable. We believe that women and girls share equal rights with men and boys in all aspects of life, we call upon all leaders to promote and protect equal rights for women and girls.”

In this spirit, Ajahn Brahm, whose heart was touched by the voices of women wanting to ordain, opened the way for them to do so at his monastery in Perth, Australia.

On October 22, 2009 four women from the Dhammasara Nun’s Monastery, also in Perth, became fully ordained as Theravada bhikkhunis at Bodhinyana Monastery via the dual ordination procedure prescribed in the Pali Canon.

The bhikkhunis were ordained first by eight qualified members of the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha, with the Venerable Bhikkhuni Ayya Tathaaloka as their as preceptor.

Directly afterwards their ordinations were confirmed by 10 qualified members of the Theravada bhikkhu sangha, including Ajahn Brahm who participated as chanting mentor, acariya, thus fulfilling the qualifications for a dual ordination.

The response to the Perth ordinations by the Thai elders was swift and draconian.

Ajahn Brahm was effectively excommunicated from the Thai forest tradition and stripped of his preceptorship.

As the breath of Buddhism flows back and forth between the East and West it becomes infused with the western spirit of respect for women and the precious, unique gifts they bring to the table. NGOs have discovered that the best way to lift up a society is to support its women with small loans and educational opportunities and, throughout the world, more and more women are taking up positions of power in politics, education, business and religion. These are the prevailing winds of our time. If Thai Buddhism is to be respected as a vital, living force for good, it must have the humility and wisdom to rethink its views on the spiritual equality of women, views that have created great suffering.

To make the argument that women can become enlightened under the current system so it is good enough; to say that women asking for parity with their brothers is ego-driven, disruptive of their equanimity and the equanimity of the community, is a smoke-screen.

Lack of respect for female monastics goes much deeper than the nature of a woman’s enlightenment. Keeping women monastics unempowered adversely affects not only female and male monastics but the entire community, by setting an ethical precedence for lay people.

This precedence informs how a husband may treat a wife, how a society may treat its women, and how girls are seen as having less value than boys.

There are a number of views regarding how sexism made it way into Buddhism. Some scholars believe that sexism was not implemented by the Buddha himself but actually became part of Buddhism at a later date. Others point out that the Buddha was being revolutionary by including women in the sangha in a time and place where women were considered chattels. Many of the original rules may have been made in good faith to protect the women and protect the sangha.

Whatever the reason, continuing the practice of sexual discrimination in our current cultural climate must end now if the Buddhist values of compassion and wisdom are to be deemed credible.

Holding to sexist views, as Buddhism moves into a free society filled with people looking for truth and highly sensitive to institutional abuses, would destroy Buddhism’s chance of really taking hold in the West.

Subjugating half of the population to a lesser position is neither wise nor compassionate – values that trump historical precedence no matter how that precedence came to be. St Augustine wrote, “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Making the argument that Ajahn Brahm did not perform this delicate operation in the most skillful manner is a lesser point to the fact that he had the courage to move things in a positive and forward direction.

Buddhism is at a turning point.

The Dalai Lama said, “Bhikkhunis have a unique role to play in the evolution of Buddhism where the universal principle of the equality of all human beings takes precedence.”

Each ajahn, every layman and laywoman needs to think carefully about what he or she wants to leave behind for our sons and daughters.

It is not easy to start a bhikkhuni order where there has been none, with no established monastery for training, with very little funding, where sisters often live far from one another, where a sister’s validity is sometimes questioned by her brothers.

These rugged new bhikkhunis are carving out a space for women in Buddhism with their hearts and with their lives so that our girls may some day see a radiant, gentle bhikkhuni walking down a dusty road, or a green quad, or a cement sidewalk, and say to themselves, “How can I find this same radiance within myself?”

This is what will bring Buddhism alive in the West and keep it alive in the East.


Copyright © Jacqueline Kramer