Re-examining conventional wisdom on the issue of bhikkhunis
in the Theravada Buddhist tradition
By Nissara Horayangura, The Bangkok Post, April 28, 2009
Bangkok, Thailand — To many, it is a non-issue, either because they do not believe the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha can be revived, do not see any need for it, do not think women want it, or do not even know it already exists. Yet, with Theravada bhikkhunis now found in every region of Thailand, as well as around the world, the issue cannot be ignored for long.
Whether one is for, against, or indifferent to bhikkhunis, having accurate and broad-based information is key for understanding the issue more deeply and forming well-grounded opinions. Here, Ajahn Brahm, shared his knowledge and perspectives on the issue.
The UK-born and Cambridge-educated monk was ordained in 1974 and trained for nine years under Ajahn Chah in the Thai forest. He is well-known for his Vinaya scholarship and is currently the abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia, where there are growing calls for Theravadan bhikkhuni ordination to occur on Australian soil.
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Is it true that since the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha ’died out’ many centuries ago, it has been impossible to ordain new bhikkhunis correctly according to Vinaya? And are Thai bhikkhunis who have been ordained since the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha, which was restored in Sri Lanka [in the late 1990s with Mahayana bhikkhunis as preceptors], not legitimate Theravada bhikkhunis?
That is a myth. In Thailand, we sometimes spend too much of our time believing our teachers, believing accepted wisdom rather than investigating and challenging. I thought, too, when I was a young monk in Thailand that the bhikkhuni order couldn’t be legally revived. But having investigated and studied, I’ve found there is no problem at all. Someone like Bhikkhu Bodhi [a respected Theravada scholar-monk] has researched the Pali Vinaya and his paper is one of the most eloquent I’ve seen – fair, balanced, comes out on the side of ’It’s possible, why don’t we do this?’ I’ve helped to publish the Thai translation of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper, which will be distributed to monks and other interested people in Thailand. One of the biggest myths is that bhikkhunis in the Mahayana tradition are somehow separated from the Theravada. But the truth of the matter is, there is no such thing as a Mahayana Vinaya. In all the Mahayana schools, they follow mostly a Dharmagupta Vinaya. Dharmagupta is one of the Theravada sects. They follow Theravada Vinaya. So the bhikkhunis we see even now in Taiwan and China is a lineage that is unbroken since the time of the Buddha.
In addition, there is another way of reading the Vinaya to say that the Buddha left an opportunity open for just the bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunis and revive the bhikkhuni sangha.
Given this possibility in the Vinaya, we can argue that point as scholars, but also out of compassion. You have to follow the rules, but if there is a possible interpretation, which is the kind one, that’s the one we should follow because that’s what the Buddha would have encouraged us to do.
It was very easy before to say it can’t be done. Now the argument is not whether it can or can’t be done, but why it should or shouldn’t be done.
So why do you think it should be done?
Why did the Buddha establish the bhikkhuni order if it wasn’t going to help further the dharma or give more possibility for women to become enlightened? We always say the Buddha knows better than us. If the Buddha thought it was a good idea, then why can’t we?
It actually saddens me as a monk that women don’t have the support to renounce. If they were given half the chance, many women would like to live the monastic life. If we had ordinations and monasteries for bhikkhunis just like we have for bhikkus, they would flourish. They would not abuse the opportunity, they would not destroy the sangha, they would enhance it, embellish it and they’d do a marvellous service of bringing Buddhism into the 21st century and into the forefront of Thai society again.
It’s often said that Thai people, both in Bangkok and the provinces, are moving away from Buddhism. Having bhikkhunis would be one very powerful, effective way to restore that confidence in Buddhism. It’ll show that we’re modern. And it’ll show that we are a fair religion. How can we say that we are following reason and truth and fairness when we deny 50 percent of the population the same opportunities?
In a country like Australia, there is no choice. When other religions are introducing equal rights to women, if Buddhism doesn’t we’re not going to survive. It’s culturally unacceptable to have a lack of equity for men and women in Western countries and it’s becoming that way in Thailand.
Buddhism is also fading in Thailand because people aren’t respecting monks so much. Get the women on board and they can help clean it up.
In Thailand, there are already many laywomen who are dharma teachers and ’mae chees’ [white-robed nuns] who are highly respected and content with their role. Many laypeople say it doesn’t matter to them if someone is wearing the yellow robe or not, as long as they give good teachings. So why do we need to have bhikkhunis?
Even in countries like Australia or the US, where there are many lay teachers, along with monk teachers and monks who don’t teach. Even the monks who don’t teach get more support than the lay people who do teach. People support the sangha because the Buddha himself said in the suttas [discourses] that any gift given to the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha earns much higher merit than a gift given to a layperson. Why? Because you’re not supporting a person, you’re supporting a tradition, a vehicle.
Mae chees are not a field of merit as such. The Buddha never established a mae chee order. He established the bhikkhuni order. You can’t argue with that.
The reality is in Thailand, most mae chees do not have the prestige, and with it, the support. Perhaps if there were bhikkhunis, women would get more support.
And some people will ask me, ’Are there even any women who want to become bhikkhunis?’ As long as there’s one person who wants to become a bhikkhuni, we should make that an opportunity for them. Not everyone wants to become a bhikkhuni. But if there’s one, 10, 20, then why not? And as far as I know, many women do want to become bhikkhunis.
It is not necessary to be a bhikkhuni to realise enlightenment – some laywomen and mae chees have done it. How can being a bhikkhuni help one to progress in dharma and reach the highest goal?
This is related to the issue of support. The Buddha said you need sappaya [conducive conditions] for practice – a quiet place, good support and not too many duties to perform. Currently, it’s very hard for women to find such places.
Another benefit is the inspiration it gives you. As a monk, I know I’m in a lineage, which goes back 2,500 years. Recently, I was in Sri Lanka where there is a cave that has inscriptions saying it was offered to the sangha 1,500 years ago. And you could sit in that cave and know that there’d been monks who’d been sitting in that cave for the last 1,500 years, meditating. Keeping the same precepts that I was. That gave me such an inspiration. You feel you have to keep up that tradition and honour those monks who came before. That’s a huge help to my own practice. It’s powerful.
Also, a bhikkhuni has more rules of restraint than an upasika (female disciple) or a mae chee [eight to 10 precepts versus 311 precepts for bhikkhunis]. What we are restraining are the senses, the outflows of the mind, the defilements. So in a very profound sense, when one makes that transition, even from a novice to a bhikkhu, or mae chee to a bhikkhuni, those extra rules are very helpful. Because of greater restraint, you usually find that it’s easier to gain the deeper attainments in meditation and also enlightenment.
But can’t women practitioners just study the bhikkhuni rules and keep them on their own, without needing to be bhikkhunis?
When you keep the rules when you’re living in a community [of monks], then you really do keep the rules. Because there are other monks checking on you. And you’re in a situation where you’re supported to keep the rules. If you try to keep them by yourself, other people who don’t understand their importance will argue with you, and you will lose those rules.
Similarly, women are commonly told by many monks and even other laywomen that ’it’s not necessary to ordain to practice’. You can ordain in your heart [’buad thi jai’] and practise wherever you are. What do you think?
If monks say [to women] that it’s not necessary to ordain to practice well, then they should disrobe and practise as laypersons. Then at least they’ll be true to their word. The reason why they are monks is because it is easier to practise as a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni.
I was there with Ajahn Chah one evening when Christopher Titmuss [a lay teacher in the UK], who was then a monk, went to tell Ajahn Chah he was about to disrobe. Ajahn Chah said, “Why?” And he said, “Because I want to teach the dharma in the West, and it’s easier to teach as a layperson than a monk”. And Ajahn Chah responded, “Then why did the Buddha establish the sangha?” He made a very strong point, that the Buddha established it because it is the best vehicle for a person to practise to reach enlightenment, and also the best vehicle for teaching the dharma.
The four pillars of Buddhist society—bhikkhus (male monks), bhikkhunis (female monks), ‘upasaka’ (male lay devotees) and ‘upasika’ (female lay devotees)—are pictured on a mural in the Hall of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. Photo © Alliance for Bhikkhunis.
Do you think that during the time that the Theravada bhikkhuni order was discontinued for centuries, fewer women have attained enlightenment than would have otherwise been possible?
Reason tells me that the spiritual attainments of women would have been less without the bhikkhuni sangha. The spiritual attainment of men would have also been less [without the bhikkhu sangha].
So in a way is it rather like ’lip service’ to say ’women and men have equal spiritual potential’ if there are not equal supporting conditions to realise that potential?
I agree. I’d use a simile. We may say that women are as intelligent as men, but then have no universities that accept women. When I went to Cambridge University there were about 30 colleges for men and only three colleges for women. Today men and women are equally represented throughout that university. If we’d have said, “Yes, women are as intelligent” but still kept 30 men’s colleges to three women’s colleges, would that be acceptable?
Many people negatively perceive those seeking bhikkhuni ordination as strident feminists demanding equal rights.
The ones I’ve met who are seeking ordination are not like that at all. I think that’s another myth. They’re not demanding. They’ve come to me and said “I’m not doing this for myself”. What they’re going to do will be tough, tough as ever, but they want to do it as a service. There’s almost a sense of mission, to make it possible, not maybe for them, but for other women, to live the Holy Life in its purity. So there’s a sense of sacrifice – they’re doing this out of high ideals, not out of personal gain.
Many, even those sympathetic to bhikkhunis, feel powerless to do anything because of the Thai Sangha Council’s 80-year-old ruling forbidding monks from ordaining women and the still weak societal acceptance of bhikkhunis. What can people, both monk and lay, do to help support the bhikkhuni revival?
It’s never the case that “nothing can be done”. It’s just that you haven’t thought of it yet. Keep on thinking, keep on investigating, and eventually solutions come up.
If there’s anything we can do to improve society, even simple things, we should. It’s irresponsible not to. Because it’s our duty as human beings.
The main obstacle is ignorance of the fact that the bhikkhuni lineage has already been revived and is legitimate. So, we should spread this news to the Buddhist institutions and societies, and the media.
Next, the small bhikkhuni sangha requires special material support to grow from almost no resources, so give offerings to the sangha of both genders just like laypeople did in the Buddha’s time. And when the bhikkhuni sangha in Thailand has grown in numbers, and is well respected for its virtuous conduct and peaceful teachings, then its popularity will be the natural cause for changing any discriminatory legislation.
Any parting words?
It’s not hard to establish the bhikkhuni sangha if there are women wanting to do it and monks willing to perform the ordination. It’s legally valid [according to Vinaya]. Why not? It’s an experiment. Have an open mind, give it a chance, see what happens. And if it is true that it’s not really necessary and that laypeople can practise just as well, then it won’t last very long. So why not give it a try and see what happens?