By Ayya Adhimutta, March 2008
On March 9, 2008, I went forth from home to homelessness with my bhikkhuni teacher Ayya Tathaaloka as upajjaya. Under more ‘normal’ circumstances, I would then have taken dependence on Ayya Tathaaloka and the Bhikkhuni Sangha for my training; but in reflection of the times (and in reflection of his great generosity and compassion), I then went across to the Bhikkhu Sangha and took dependence on Bhante Sujato.
Since I first ordained as a mae chee in Thailand (2005), I’ve learned through (sometimes bitter) experience, the importance of space and support – physical, psychological and intellectual as well as spiritual – for the holy life to be well lived. I hope that this samaneri ordination will mark the beginning of a new era within our tradition (The Forest Tradition) and after this, as a woman, one will be able to go forth within a context which assumes the natural progression of samaneri status to full ordination as a bhikkhuni.
For myself, after experiencing other forms of ordination, there is a sense of rightness and flow to this progression, it feels like bones that have long been misaligned and caused so much distress are now in their natural place. I appreciate the courage, integrity and great beauty of the many women before me who managed to carve out a coherent monastic life with 10 precept ordination. I am grateful and inspired by the work they have done; the ground they have prepared; the way they have grown in often difficult and unsupportive conditions. For myself, however, ten-precept ordination has a feeling of incompleteness.
Until very recently, bhikkhuni ordination was a bit of a ‘non-issue’ within the Thai Forest Tradition. There was this idea that the Bhikkhuni Sangha had died out 1000 years ago and that it can not be revived. Therefore, women should be content with other forms of ordination – as mae chee, or ten precept nuns, and that the full ordination is not necessary for them. So, it was within a wider monastic context shaped by these sort of ideas that I first came to Santi as little as a year ago.
At Santi, even back then, things were a little different. A dual Sangha was living here and with great joy I had the opportunity to serve both bhikkhus and bhikkhuni. Furthermore, at issues such as women’s place and situation in buddhism, bhikkhuni ordination and so on (issues which form the texture and rhythm of my monastic life as a woman) were actively engaged with, discussed and debated. Outside of this small monastery, however, these issues were largely ignored and pushed to one side. The image and loyalty to an all male sangha, within the mainstream and backed by tradition, had a resiliance and a strength that it was almost impossible to stand up to.
In order to create this space for bhikkhuni ordination to take root and flourish, there had to be a countercurrent to the mainstream within the river of our tradition. A special combination of skills and factors has been necessary to bring this about. It was necessary to have people who had undergone trained within the tradition, who understood it intimately, and who had great appreciation and faith for the beauty and gifts it has to offer. Furthermore, we needed people who have enough clarity to see the weaknesses of the tradition, and enough compassion to be moved by the suffering caused by the blindpoints of traditional structures. Moreover, these people needed the strength, wisdom and conviction to heal the blindspots. For example, when they seeing injustice of suffering caused by traditional structures (especially, in this case, those denying full ordination and participation for women in monastic life) it was necessary to look deeply into the texts, and see if indeed the Buddhas original intentions and teachings support the assumptions underlying traditional structures. Furthermore in doing this sort of work, in challenging ideas that have long been held as sacred, one inevitably faces strong opposition; so it has also taken enormous strength and stamina to stand against the main currents of the river and to investigate.
Over the last few years, meditators and scholars like Bhante Sujato, Ayya Tathaaloka and Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi have had the dedication, clarity and strength to undertake this sort of investigation. By looking deeply into the traditions in which we exist and examining the ways in which they have grown, and the assumptions that underlie them, they have been able to expose these assumptions, and enable us to see our traditions in a new light; and have allowed us to separate the original intentions of the Buddha from cultural accretions. By doing these monastics have been able to create new currents within the vast river of our tradition, and to allow the causes and conditions to flow that support bhikkhuni ordination.
This work had been going along steadily and quietly for a long time – largely disregarded and ignored in little side-streams and backwaters, but having no real impact on the main flow of events. In July 2007, however, there was the International conference about bhikkhuni ordination in Hamburg. Ayya Tathaaloka, Bhante Sujato and Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi as Theravadan monastics spoke clearly and intelligently about many of the assumptions that prevent the bhikkhuni sangha from taking root and flourishing. After these ideas were voiced in an international forum of this kind, the necessity for bhikkhuni ordination was no longer able to be swept aside by mainstream assumptions, but began to be more openly recognised and engaged with within the main currents of the river.
In November 2007 Bhante Sujato had the inspiration to invite bhikkhunis, nuns with various forms of ordination and women to Santi to discuss issues surrounding bhikkhuni ordination. This idea was enthusiastically taken up by the community here. At Santi, although we had the vision of a flourishing bhikkhuni sangha, as young nuns and nuns-to-be we felt alone and unsupported within our wider context which had until recently has denied the existence and necessity of a bhikkhuni sangha. We were not stepping into a context and structure that was already formed and guaranteed support and respect as the monks do; but as young nuns, still feeling very tender and in need of guidance, we felt as if we were stepping into nothing, and that we had to build the bridge as we walked on it.
Appropriate that Santi should provide the space for the first such gathering/ conference within the Forest Tradition. The land that our monastery is built on was generously provided by Venerable Nirodha, the first Nun to ordain on Australian soil. Bhante Sujato is the abbot, a monk whose conviction about the necessity of a bhikkhuni sangha stems from his compassion in seeing the suffering caused when the desire to go forth and live the monastic life in its full form is denied, and from his deep contemplation and intimate knowledge of the early Buddhist texts which provide a clear vision of the necessity of the four-fold sangha. Our wonderful monk brothers, Bhante Jaganatha, Bhante Mettabha and Bhante Tapassi have supported us and are with us every step of the way. Also, we have the support of many lay-people, both near and far, who see that the time for the flourishing of the four-fold sangha has come, and who support us with their enthusiasm and energy on many levels.