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Bhikkhuni and Western Sangha split

by Sanitsuda Ekachai, Bangkok Post, October 12, 2009

Bangkok, Thailand -- The late forest monk and meditation master Luang Por Chah was a true visionary.

While his peers did not bother with training Western monks, he did it seriously at his Wat Pah Pong forest monastery in Ubon Ratchathani.

Not only that. The far-sighted master also sent his fleet of phra farang to share with the Western world the gems of Theravada Buddhist practices and teachings.

Now, there are nearly 20 international branches of the forest monasteries in the Luang Por Chah tradition overseas.

True, the Ecclesiastical Council also sends Thai monks to ''spread Thai Buddhism'' abroad.

But the Thai-speaking monks primarily provide religious rites, rituals and a Thai cultural cocoon for Thai immigrants far from home.

In contrast, the strictly disciplined phra farang focus on the core teachings and the practice of vipassana meditation to help people fill their inner void with Buddhist spirituality.

When the Thai clergy is deeply buried in feudalism and ridden with misconduct, these phra farang are indeed a breath of fresh air.

They have proved that monks can indeed remain relevant in the modern world if they are just true to their monastic life and spiritual pursuit.

But success entails great expectations. The greatest expectation, and the most controversial, is the full ordination of women as Bhikkhunis.

For the Thai clergy, their position is clear: Stop dreaming about it.

Ask why, and here's the standard line: the lineage of Theravada Bhikkhuni has died out a long time ago.

With no Theravada Bhikkhunis around to ordain women, reviving the lineage is technically impossible.

Naturally, women who are committed to a monastic life shift their hopes to their phra farang teachers.

With stronger awareness of gender equality in the West and the already substantive research of the Buddhist canon to support the revival of Bhikkhuni ordination, they believe the Western-born phra farang will be more sympathetic and able to effect positive changes on foreign soil.

The ambiguity of the phra farang movement regarding female ordination has helped sustained that hope for the past 30 years.

That hope was shattered last week.

Shock and disillusionment reverberated throughout the Western lay community when they learned that the British-born Phra Brahmvamso, or Ajahn Brahm, was expelled by the Wat Pah Pong clerical community for engineering a Bhikkhuni ordination at his temple in Perth.

The expulsion was endorsed by the Western clergy.

According to Wat Pah Pong, the Western monks must adhere to the laws of the Thai Sangha and Thai state which oppose female ordination.

Ajahn Brahm violated this ground rule. By concealing the ordination from the Wat Pah Pong elders both here and abroad, his action was tantamount to deceit, total disrespect, and a serious breach of trust and communal decision-making based on consultation and consensus.

When given the chance, he refused to declare the Perth ordination null and void and to downgrade the new four Bhikkhunis to mae chee or ten-precept nuns.

So he then must leave.

Instead of feeling angry and disillusioned, we should be thankful. It is finally out in the open where the phra farang elders stand on female ordination.

The women with the Bhikkhuni goals no longer have to waste their time pinning hopes on the Wat Pah Pong clergy. Women just have to look elsewhere.

We should also feel humbled. If the elders who have practiced long and hard are still trapped in gender prejudice and clique mentality, it only shows how much longer, more ardous and trickier the path of spiritual liberation is for beginners like us.

In this sense, the elders remain our teachers. And regardless of the controversy, a monk in the Luang Por Chah lineage has brought about another positive change in Theravada Buddhism for women on foreign soil.

Indeed, Luang Por Chah was a true visionary.

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