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Theravada Bhikkhuni and the Buddha's Four-fold Assembly

by Dr Dion Peoples, The Buddhist Channel, Aug 8, 2015

A properly functioning Sangha has four aspects: bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay women and lay men. All are equally required to uphold and support the Buddha's doctrinal tradition and practices.

Bangkok, Thailand -- When I was in the US Air Force, stationed in Germany, I was given a set of books - the writings of Nicherin, by an older woman co-worker.  I also came into contact with a Taiwanese Buddhist woman who owned and operated a Chinese Restaurant, near the base where I was stationed.  

<< The Theravada Bhikkhuni - the missing leg in the Four-fold Assembly.

When I spoke with these respected and strong-minded women, we all knew that there were nuns in Buddhism. The Taiwanese woman prepared me, through our philosophical debates, to become a Bhikkhu - my dream at that time.

I was already reading the Tipitaka and it mentions the existence of  Bhikkhunis.  I was always around strong Buddhist women but often never realized it. I was even influenced by a very wise Thai Buddhist-woman columnist of a national newspaper in Thailand, who often writes about social issues and problems in the Thai Sangha.

When I arrived in Thailand to learn about its cultural adaptation of Buddhism within its social and philosophical context, I realized that an important aspect of Buddhism was missing.

Buddhism has what is called the "four-fold assemblies". It does not have three. There are no four precepts, there are five.  If something is broken, it can be fixed.

In Buddhism, monks who violate a precept speaks out for forgiveness before listening to the Patimokkha recitation.  If someone, somewhere, didn't fulfill his duty, then he has to apologize to the entire congregation and ensure that the mistake will never be made again.

We, as Buddhists, cannot pick and choose what discourse to follow.  When the entire Tipitaka is duly considered, we know that there are four assemblies.

I recently encountered a situation at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU): the graduate-school had a seminar on the status of Bhikkhunis in Thailand.  I found the literature that was disseminated for the seminar and read it.

In it, there was a remark by the author, citing a "program director" who referenced a quote from a former Sangharaja. He said, "anyone who supports the resurrection of the Bhikkhuni tradition is an enemy of Buddhism".

I posted this document on my Facebook page, and was told by an ordained associate to remove the document because it may cause some damage to the university's reputation.  I argued, in fact, that it was a benefit to the university that the topic was being discussed, since the university was governed by personnel associated with the Supreme Sangha Council of Thailand.

It has to be said that the Supreme Sangha Council had previously banned papers written by notable ordained monks who support the ordination of women. This is public knowledge. 
And yet, it is also wrong to say that the Thai Sangha does not respect Bhikkhunis.  If a woman is a Mahayana bhikkhuni, she is recognized as such and respect is given.

Unfortunately there exist a view is that there are no legally ordained Theravada Bhikkhunis - ignoring those who have recently made such attempts and progress.  The issue has been unnecessarily made complicated by the Thai Sangha.

But I believe that it can be resolved - simply and with dignity.  Here is a suggestion on how to progress.

Through our collective Buddhist wisdom, recognize that historical mistakes have been made and assert that Buddhism is a wisdom tradition. In such a tradition, recognize that women play a valuable role in Buddhist societies and that this role is increasing in importance.

Therefore, any attempt to fill these gaps would require the provision of adequate procedures where women can receive proper monastic training and ordination. 

People can research the national demographics: what is the population of men to women in  Thailand?  What is the proportion of the ordained to the laity?  The numbers are relatively insignificant. How many women actually wish to ordain?  Again, nationally, these numbers are insignificant.

Bhikkhunis are not a threat to masculinity or to national Thai culture.

The issue of ordained women being present in the Sangha is akin to the issue of homosexuality within the male dominated Sangha. Since those who wish to ordain would most likely commit to serious spiritual training, it is unlikely that they will have intention to develop sexual relationships.

There is therefore little possibility of sexual misconduct.

The monastic-code of discipline trains bhikkhus to behave without any sort of displays of sexuality - gay or straight. Display of such tendencies would be frowned upon since the praecipua causa of ordination is personal enlightenment, protection and the spreading of Buddha Dhamma.

Yes, monks behaving as lustful men may just have the inclination to violate their oath and have sexual relationships with women. But this is just as true for homosexuals.  Video clips often go viral depicting monks behaving in poor judgement.

If the act is discovered, then just get them disrobed and prohibit them from re-ordaining. If it demands a civil case, the sexual deviant may be arrested and jailed - not as a bhikkhu, but as a layman - one who has committed a crime.

No man should fear the ordaining of women.  Women outnumber males in Thailand. Empowered collectively, their voice would resonate for social change within the Sangha and for the Four-fold Assembly.

It is truly irrational, how women are being spiritually suppressed through a tradition that was designed for liberation.  There is no excuse not to enable women to attain full liberation. There are many studies on this issue and all are worth reading and considering.

Bhikkhus who decline to support the Bhikkhuni issue or those who sit in neutral silence, may not be worthy of the almsfood offered by the laity.  The laity can play an active part by persuading Sangha members who possess the right understanding to accept the fact that Theravada Bhikkunis are part and parcel of the Sangha. They can do this by providing economic and social support to such monks.

Consider this: many of the Vinaya regulations were designed because the laity criticized the monks or nuns on one issue or another. To properly retain the faith of the followers, regulations were made so that the laity could (again) retain the faith or confidence in the role of the Sangha.

So let it be said again and again: a properly functioning Sangha has four aspects: bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay women and lay men. All are equally required to uphold and support the Buddha's doctrinal tradition and practices.


Dr. Dion Peoples is the Manager of the International Association of Buddhist Universities, and the General Editor and Conference Organizer for the United Nations Day of Vesak Academic Conference, since 2007.  He additionally serves as an advisor for the Alliance for Bhikkhunis' magazine, Present.  He is also an academic-advisor (curriculum designer) for the Hispanic Institute for Buddhist Studies (IEBH), and for Buddhist Studies programs for ASEAN.  He has written books on the Sangiti Sutta, and on Buddhist Critical Thinking Skills.  He has been working with Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University since 2007.  His collection of writings, Buddhist and others, can be found online, on his www.academia.edu website-page.  He also publishes the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Universities (JIABU), and the Santisuksa Journal for Peace Studies, through MCU's Peace Studies Program.  He can be freely contacted on his Facebook page, or the Facebook page for the IABU Secretariat.

This article is an extract from an interview with Dr Dion by the Buddhist Channel.

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