When conditions change

By S Ratna, New York, USA, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 12, 2009

I refer to the ongoing controversy over the nuns’ ordination by Ajahn Brahmavamso in Australia. I have been following the incident closely and have accessed many sites (including this one) so that I could get a feel of the actual issues.

From what I understand, the issue stems not from the way the ordination was carried out, but whether it was sanctioned by the Wat Pah Pong Sangha. Since Wat Pah Pong answers to the Mahathera Samakom, (the Thai Sangha's governing body) and the Thai state (from which the King of Thailand presides over the Sangharaja), it therefore subservient to Thai laws and statutes. Based on the official statement issued by Wat Pah Nanachat (http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=70,8661,0,0,1,0), it is clear that the Thai Sangha governing body in general does not allow for Bhikkuni ordination.

Let’s get back to the Sangha of Wat Pah Pong. Those familiar with this tradition will tell you that it was the monastery established by Ajahn Chah, renowned for his emulation of practicing the Dhamma-Vinaya as it was back in the Buddha’s time. Called the forest monks, they observe Dhutanga or ascetic austerities, and adhered strictly to the Vinaya. In all sense and manners, we can actually say that this Sangha actually lives and breathes the Dhamma and Vinaya, uncorrupted “as is”, as close as you can get from the Buddha Himself. This was the monastery where the current abbot of Bodhinyana (where the nuns were ordained) Ajahn Brahmavamso spent a big part of his monkhood training.

Wat Pah Pong would have remained a Thai entity if not for one western monk, Ajahn Sumedho. In 1967, this American came to Wat Pah Pong and was ordained by Ajahn Chah. He would become the first of many western monks to internationalize the forest sangha movement. By establishing Wat Pah Nanachat in 1975, his monastery opened doors to western students eager to experience the Dhamma Vinaya without the corruption of money, rites and rituals.

By now you may be wondering why I am bringing up three distinct but separate matters.

First of all, I sincerely believe that the ordination of the four nuns were valid on its merit, in accordance with the Vinaya. It should be pointed out that the senior Ajahns overseeing the ordination (but not as the preceptor) were themselves trained in Wat Pah Pong.

But by being affiliated with Wat Pah Pong, Ajahn Brahmavamso is presumed to be a subject to the conditions established by the Mahathera Samakom, more so that he also holds a Thai monastic passport and was appointed as a “Chao Khun” (much like a Bishop).  And so by presiding over the ordination, his role and presence became a dichotomy to his lineage. So it is not difficult to see how the monastic firestorm got started.

By bringing to fruition the ordination of the four nuns, Ajahn Brahmavamso has touched a rich vein of support. The re-birth of the Bhikkuni Sangha at Bodhinyana monastery, a branch of the fourfold assembly which was said to have been extinguished in Thailand since 11 – 13th century AD, was indeed an epochal event.
Given the magnitude of the occasion, and the anti-climax of Ajahn Brahm’s expulsion from the Wat Pah Pong Sangha because of it, it is no wonder that so much interest was generated in public discourse.

The general dispute is that Ajahn Brahm was punished because of his affiliation with his monastic lineage. Kester Ratcliff’s excellent article touches on this matter succinctly when he asked this question: Monastic lineages and the Vinaya: Which is Buddhist? (http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=8,8676,0,0,1,0). In the eyes of many, the solution is obvious: If subservience to tradition and lineage means to be punished for an act which is deemed correct Vinaya wise, then why hold on to it? It is a valid point which senior monks have to address.

But for those who accuse the senior Ajahns of blind allegiance and indifferent to an idea whose time has come (i.e. women as monastic Sangha), I would like to implore to please understand the training and environment in which they were spiritually brought up.

As a pioneer monk, Ajahn Sumedho immersed himself to Thai culture, speaks Thai and probably became half Thai himself. So to expect him to “break off” ties with his fellow Sangha brothers would be unrealistic.
It is fair to say that without the effort of pioneer forest monks like Ajahn Brahm, the dhutanga tradition would not have prevailed all over the world. Bodhinyana itself is a result of this pioneering effort.

If we take the view from this angle, then it is no fault of the western monks like Ajahn Sumedho for voting against the ordination. They simply acted based on the collective decision structure of their Sanghahood. Nevertheless, the expulsion and the corresponding uproar could just be the catalyst to push the Thai Sangha to re-evaluate their stance on Bhikkuni ordination.

From the feel of the blogs and forums, the matter remains unresolved. Will a new era of a truly independent Western Buddhist Order emerge after this? Will the Thai Sangha be more open and acceptable to the realization of the Bhikkuni Sangha? Will the pioneering Ajahns, whose quiet, noble work established a pure, untainted monastic order be willing to tinker their relationship with their fellow Thai Sangha? Will they be allowed to cruise along with the changing times, but ever guided by the Dhamma-Vinaya, without the encumbrance of monastic lineage and cultural links? Is that practical in the first place?

Whatever it is, I sincerely hope that there will be no winners and losers in this situation. Not even a win-win situation if unproductive compromises have to be made along the way. But as long as good sense prevail, and if everyone concerned are open to the fact that the world has moved on, I believe productive, constructive changes can be initiated “for the good of many”. But only so long as Dhamma-Vinaya remains the bedrock behind such change.

May good sense prevail and may the Buddha-Dhamma ever be our guide. Sadhu!