Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ajahn Brahm Expelled for Ordaining Nuns

The popular monk Ajahn Brahm has been disciplined by the Thai forest monastery sangha founded by the Venerable Ajahn Chah because he was involved in ordaining four women as nuns, or bhikkunis, in a ceremony on October 22 at his Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Australia. The Wat Pah Pong Sangha's action of excommunication (revoking Bodhinyana's status as a branch monastery) has resulted in a firestorm of controversy in the Theravada Buddhist world.

The ordination of nuns is illegal under Thai Buddhist law because the order of nuns became extinct sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries, after which, the argument goes, no new bhikkhunis could be ordained since there were none left to preside over an ordination. However, nuns currently may be ordained in the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka, and also in Mahayana Buddhist countries, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and China where the religious authorities are not so conservative. According to an official statement from the Thai forest sangha, Ajahn Brahm's decision to ordain nuns without permission "may cause wrong understanding among Buddhists throughout the world, and division of views regarding this issue." Called to Wat Pah Pong a week after the ordination, Ajahn Brahm was told the ordination at his monastery was invalid and the senior monks asked him to recant. He refused.

Born in London, Ajahn Brahm went to study with Ajahn Chah in Thailand after graduating from Cambridge and remained for nine years. He has published numerous books and is extremely popular here in Bankok where his talks draw large crowds. His ordination as a monk was presided over by the abbot of Wat Saket who is now acting Sangharaja of the supreme Monks’ Council of Thailand. In his online statement of "why he was excommunicated," Ajahn Brahm said he had consulted his preceptor "to ask him precisely his opinion on the ordination of Bhikkhunis outside of Thailand. His response, which I have circulated amongst the Western Sangha for a long time now, was 'Thai Sangha law does not extend outside of Thailand.'" The conflict over ordaining nuns is complex, involving Buddhist traditions and lineages, the formal Vinaya rules established by the Buddha and national sangha regulations which often reflect cultural prejudices. I have written before about how the Thai Sangha treats women as untouchable. Ajahn Brahm discussed his support for bhikkunis in an interview in the Bangkok Post last April (a complete transcript of the edited interview can be found here).

The fallout from this controversy is particularly intense because many western Buddhist monks have been trained in the forest tradition and owe allegiance to Ajahn Chah's lineage based at Wat Pah Pong. Although he is not in that tradition, the influential Bhikku Bodhi initially supported the ordination ceremony in Perth, but later issued a retraction. Ajahn Chandako, an American monk now at Vimutti Monastery in New Zealand, wrote that "this particular ordination was a serious mistake." His criticism was answered by Ajahn Brahmali and the Bodhinyana Sangha who reminded Ajahn Chandako of his previous view that, while there are no serious obstacles to ordaining nuns in the west, ordaining bhikkhunis in the Ajahn Chah Sangha "is another matter." It was this resistance that prompted Bodhinyana to proceed in secrecy. When informed by Ajahn Brahm, Luang Por Ajahn Sumedho, abbot of Amaravati Monastery in England and the most senior western representative of the Ajahn Chah tradition, advised him not to proceed with the ordination. A meeting of monks was to be held at Bodhinyana Monastery in December and bhikkhuni ordination was on the table. Many objected that Ajahn Brahm's action was premature. The contrary view is that it might have been more difficult to push the issue after the expected negative response was received.

A tempest in a teapot, as my atheist friend Jimmy might say. Maybe. I have previously written about Ajahn Brahm's view that the sangha can only be an organization of monks, leaving laymen and women outside the ecclesiastical establishment. This comes close to the common belief that only monks and nuns can be enlightened (and in Thailand that means only men). The rest of us must be satisfied with earning merit by serving the sangha in order to gain a beneficial rebirth. I have less sympathy these days for this interpretation of the Buddha's teaching. I agree that the practice of tamboon might promote generosity, but the hierarchical structure of society that favors monks over ordinary people creates more suffering than it relieves. Ajahn Brahm has written that it is "not necessary to be a bhikkhuni to realise enlightenment - some laywomen and mae chees have done it." But he also apparently agrees with Ajahn Chah who said the Buddha established the sangha of monks and nuns because "it is the best vehicle for a person to practise to reach enlightenment." I support the decision of individuals to pursue understanding and wisdom by becoming renunciates. I would just like to see gender equality. Thai Buddhists have created the category of mae chee for women who want to leave secular life. They wear white and shave their heads. But they are not true nuns and many end up as unpaid servants to the monks in temples. I applaud Ajahn Brahm's decision to ordain nuns at his monastery and only hope that his example will be followed someday in Thailand.

The political scene here is going looney tunes (you'll have to decide who is the Road Runner and who is Wile E. Coyote). Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, always ready to tweak Thailand's nose, has appointed fugitive PM Thaksin Shinawatra to be his financial adviser. He arrived in Phnom Penh this afternoon and the Thai government is scrambling to seek his extradition (a non starter given his support by Hun Sen). The PAD yellow shirts have called for a major protest rally on Sunday in Sanam Luang Park. Ambassadors have been recalled over the appointment and war drums are sounding along the border between the two countries where the PAD is also now demanding that Thailand reclaim by force Preah Vihear Temple, a bone of contention since last year. And on Monday Thaksin gave an interview to the Timesonline of London which appeared with a headline referring to what might happen after the King's death. This caused a tremendous uproar, including the blocking of the offending story (but not the complete transcript of the interview), along with Thaksin's denial that he ever said anything negative about the royal family (he seemed to be predicting that the Prince will be a "shining" ruler when his time comes).

Last week our IDEA (Information/Dialogue/Exchange/Analysis) Group held its first book discussion and Ian kicked it off with an incisive analysis of Jungle Book: Thailand's Politics, Moral Panic, and Plunder, 1996-2008, a collection of columns by Chang Noi (the pen name of historian Chris Baker and economist Pasuk Phongpaichit) published over a dozen years in The Nation, one of Bangkok's two English language papers. The authors argue that "the rule of law has never taken root" in Thailand. Pointing out that over 2,600 people were murdered by the police during Thaksin's notorious drug war, they write: "This is not the rule of law but the law of the jungle." Through several changes of government, a military coup, and several constitutions, Chang Noi provides a litany of examples to show incidents of widespread corruption, repression and censorship, environmental devastation, political rule by "godfathers," and the endless bloody struggle between government forces and Muslim separatists in the south along the Malaysian border. It's not a pretty picture. In his most recent column, Chang Noi documents the "massively unequal distribution of wealth and power" in Thailand. "Just making government's tax and spending a bit fairer would begin to counter the trend to inequality. Is there the political will to make those changes? How much time is left."

The IDEA Group is a spin off from the comparative religion study group which has been meeting for the last six weeks in a spacious and art-filled 27th floor apartment not far from Sukhumvit and Soi Cowboy. The members of both are from the National Museum Volunteers, an organization formed forty years ago to train museum guides and disseminate information about the history and art of Thailand. Since politics could not be the topic of an organization sponsored by the royal family, our book group is totally separate. Religion, however, is not so controversial. Each week three members of the study group have presented PowerPoint talks on different aspects of religion. At our final meeting yesterday, Betty told us about compassion in the world's religions, Jo Ann discussed the importance of fire and water as religious symbols and Jeanne shared her beliefs as a Mormon in a talk on life after death as seen by the major religious movements. I've been very impressed by the collective knowledge and the research that participants put into their presentations. I'm sorry the study group has ended and look forward to another on a similar topic next year.

As a form of diversion, I've become hooked on the Panda Channel on True Vision's cable. Lin Bing was born last May 27th at the Chiang Mai Zoo, the first giant panda to be born in Thailand. Her parents were on loan from China and her birth was a major event here. Now the family reality show can be watched 24/7. It's a kind of video wallpaper and very addictive. No TV or not living in Thailand? No problem. You can watch online. Her name was chosen in a contest which drew 22 million post cards. The name is Chinese for "forest of ice." "B" and "p" are very close together, and Ping is the name of Chiang Mai's major river. The baby panda is supper cute, but I feel a twinge of guilt watching her struggle to get out through the bars in her cage. I know my friend Bob Chorush, a fomer rock and roll writer who is now an animal activist, would find it much like watching a child grow up in prison.

Last weekend I was invited to the 38th floor recording studios at GMM Grammy, the entertainment conglomerate here, to participate in the preparation of an audio book from the English version of Mind Management by Phra Wor Vajiramedhi. Phra Wor is a young monk from Chiang Rai who has published many best selling books and has appeared frequently on TV to present "applied Dhamma," Buddhist teaching for the masses. He wants to learn English and I had been approached previously by Santi from the Buddhadasa Archives and his wife Oraya, who teaches English at Thammasat University, to help. Unfortunately, I've not had the free time to spend a few weeks with the monk in Chiang Rai. Several of his books have now been translated into English and a benefactor is paying for recording time. It was to be read by Wanni, his 20-year-old niece, who spent her early years in California but was having difficulty with some pronunciation. So I was invited to be producer, stopping the recording when anything sounded wrong and offering advice and well as encouragement. I even recorded several chapters myself as a guide for Wanni. We didn't get very far and I'm not sure about the next date. I'm going over a copy of the book now to see if some multi-syllable words might be exchanged for simpler words more suitable for a popular CD.

Getting into the GMM Grammy building was not easy. There were were hundreds (thousands?) of young people waiting to try out for "Star6," a TV talent show similar to 'Academe Fantasia" which I've watched here in the past. It looked as though they were turning in applications and getting numbers at a gas station next door and then lining up for the audition. TV cameras and photographers circulated in the lobby to take pictures of the contestants who all wore numbers across their chests. I had to give up my passport in order to get a pass to enter the sacred precincts upstairs. Nan told me to watch out for famous entertainers but I had no idea what I was looking for. Yesterday, after the study group and a couple of hours visiting with Jerry, I stopped by Siam Paragon to browse at at Kinokuniya, the largest English-language bookstore in Bangkok. Hearing much shouting from one end of the large luxury mall, I found hundreds of fans, many with signs featuring the names of their favorites in lights, watching a group of stars from various entertainment competitions. I'm not sure why they were gathered together for what looked like a conversation, but the passion of their followers was obvious. Beatlemania (and the example of Sinatra's fans before that), in its current form, is alive and well in Bangkok.

If you stay an expat too long, eventually the familiar becomes strange. I was shocked the other day to see Christmas decorations going up in the shopping malls. The metal frames of what will become gigantic Christmas trees have begun rising into the sky at Central World and Siam Paragon. In the True coffee shop, I spotted these two large and brightly-lit (fake) trees. Back in America there is always a traditional delay until after Thanksgiving. First the turkey, then the not so subtle propaganda in the stores to buy presents for the family as a sign of the true faith. Some people can accept this as a time for generosity. I always felt a step up in pressure to please, and I could never think of gifts good enough to express my love. They always seemed to fall short of my own expectations. Now that I live here in Thailand, the Christmas season seems little more than a strange ritual other cultures adopt and Thais make use of to sell their goods to tourists. Still, despite this realization, there is a closet in my mind where the thought of singing carols, decorating the tree and reading "The Night Before Christmas" stirs half-forgotten memories.


Anonymous said...

I am very surprised to read that Ajahm Brahm ever said that only renunciates can attain enlightenment. This is not supported by the Buddhist scriptures at all! Can you confirm he really said this?

Anonymous said...

People say different things at different contexts and we should not refer to just one particular sentence. If I recall correctly from many of his talks and retreats I participated, he would have said that holy life is more conducive for enlightenment but many lay people especially in Lord Buddha's time had entered the stream of sainthood, which definitely lead to enlightenment. I am not very wise myself but I know living as a lay person listening to songs, tending to so many layman's responsibilities without spending enough time for mental cultivation, having relationships with attachments etc create certain obstacles to even meditate well or act well at all times. However, we as lay Buddhists should not just give up but try our best to be mindful. So, if we lay Buddhists are practicing the right way, living a restrained simple life similar to renunciants, there is no doubt as spoken by AB that we will be closer to nibbana. We should not judge others but look at ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Please allow me to share my humble opinion ( please correct me if I am wrong!). I thought Enlightenment comes from the MIND rather than who we are physically! I respect the Vinaya rules. However, I believe we must also take note of " Anicca "! As the saying goes, " All conditioned things are subject to Impermanent"! Are Vinaya Rules a set of conditioned thing? Are the Vinaya rules a set of training rules or are Vinaya rules the Monks' Commandment? Anyway, I believe there are many factors leading us to achieve Enlightenment. Not everyone can be a Buddha within one life time.

Buddhism teaches us to follow the Middle Path! Are we the buddhists really practising it or are we practising or promoting "Extreme" Path?

" Annica Dukkha Anatta " - What insights do we get from these three important characteristics of existence as stated in the Buddha's Teaching?

We must constantly take note of "Anicca" and "Anatta", or else Dukkha will definitely on the way to be with us!

May all beings be well and happy always!

Anonymous said...

vinaya rules are not comandments. It is like this, IN your renunciationm, if you see that they all conform to the vinaya rules, then you can consider being a monk. If at any time you feel you want out you can come out. Then again if you fee you want to go back againg in you become a monk again. See it is free.

Ordaining women. What a complex issue. I guess If a woman want to ordain, then ordain her. buddhism is freedom. Look we have many monks in the robe who do not follow the viaya in Sri Lanka.

Buddhism is about freedom . It is about fredom of sugffering. It is about seeing things as they really are. Thank you traditions for helping bring the dharma to the present time but tradition should not take away freedom.