The traditional “eight heavy rules” institutionalize women’s second-class status in Buddhist monasteries ― women must submit to male leadership, senior nuns must take their place behind junior monks ― and in most Buddhist lineages women are denied full ordination. Former nuns Thanissara, Jitindriya, and Elizabeth Day look at new controversies that are focusing attention on this long-standing injustice and call on Buddhist leaders to engage in a genuine dialogue for change.
In the early ’90s at a Western teachers meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, two prominent Western practitioners, Jetsun Tenzin Palmo and Sylvia Wetzel, invited His Holiness and the other senior teachers to listen while the terrible conditions for nuns were described to them. Then Sylvia offered a guided visualization where all the male images that surrounded them, the teachers, gurus even the Dalai Lama himself, were transformed into the form of women. Men were welcome to participate, but were asked to sit in the back and help with the cooking. It was a powerful moment for all at the meeting, particularly when His Holiness really “got” how deeply disempowering the lack of support and the male shaping of Buddhist forms are for women. His response was to lean his head on his hands and weep.
We heard it the way many things get communicated these days, through Facebook. The news confirmed what at first had seemed like wishful thinking: the first full bhikkhuni ordination of women in the Forest sangha of Thailand’s most famous meditation master, Ajahn Chah, had taken place on October 22, 2009, in Perth in Western Australia.
An international group of eight bhikkhunis conducted the ordination: Venerables Tathaaloka (preceptor), Sucinta and Sobhana (reciters of the formal act), Atapi, Satima, Santini, Silavati, and Dhammananda from Vietnam. Ajahn Brahmavamso and Ajahn Sujato were the reciters of the act of acceptance on the bhikkhus’ side. The four nuns ordained as bhikkhunis were Venerables Vayama, Nirodha, Seri, and Hassapanna from the Dhammasara Nuns’ Monastery near Perth.
The late Ajahn Chah was a visionary who trained many Western monks in the final decades of his life. He is the inspiration for more than two hundred branch monasteries, including about twenty across the Western world. Ajahn Brahmavamso, known as Ajahn Brahm, was one of Ajahn Chah’s first Western disciples. Over the years he received Thailand’s highest monastic honor, that of Chaokun (similar to a bishop in the Christian tradition), and several Australian secular awards. After research on the issue of bhikkhuni ordination, Ajahn Brahm, his fellow scholar–monk Ajahn Sujato, and others, came to the conclusion that there was no good reason not to support women in taking full ordination.
Like a cork popped from a tight bottle, this initiative has added momentum to the painstaking work toward gender equality in this Buddhist community. However, in the process it has inadvertently challenged the core of Thai monastic authority, which refuses to accept the validity of Theravada bhikkhuni ordination. Almost immediately after the ordinations Ajahn Brahm was officially expelled from communion with the Ajahn Chah sangha. This was principally because he refused pressure both to denounce the bhikkhuni ordination as invalid, and to regard the new bhikkhunis as mae chees―practitioners junior to novice monks. That it was not within his power to denounce the ordination―it was ostensibly carried out by the bhikkhunis present―was not taken into account. Although Ajahn Brahm had the support of his Australian community to facilitate this ordination, his participation was not condoned by the sangha’s wider international community. As a consequence, his monastery, Wat Bodhinyana, was also delisted as a branch of Wat Nong Pah Pong, which is the mothership of Ajahn Chah’s branch monasteries. That Ajahn Brahm should be censured in this way is significant due to his large following and the respect he has internationally.
These events prompted a global outcry from concerned Buddhists, with thousands of people voicing through internet networks their shock and disbelief at the shabby treatment of women in Buddhist monasticism and the punitive response to Ajahn Brahm’s support for equality in the order. Notably, many lay supporters of Buddhist monasteries have since concluded that they can no longer support monks or monasteries that oppose bhikkhuni ordination.
So what is this all about? At its core, this is about the place of women within Buddhism, which from the start, 2,500 years ago, has been a troubled one. In the cultural context of Siddhartha Gautama,women’s roles were so gravely circumscribed by brahmanical intervention that their self-determination was barely conceivable. The Buddha nevertheless recognized women’s inherent equality with men by facilitating their going forth into the renunciant life as bhikkhunis. In a culture that treated women as chattels in order to sustain its vertical power structure, this was indeed a radical move. The tension between Brahmanism and Buddhism is evident in the suttas, where we can clearly see two opposing images of women. One is of women as fully enlightened, respected leaders, teachers, and nuns running their own communities; the other is of women as blight, evil temptresses, snakes, poison, and rot.
The conventional narrative of the first nuns’ ordination is that ordination was granted to women on condition that they accept the eight garudhammas, or weighty dhammas. These rules legislate women into a junior position, in perpetuity, in relation to monks. They forbid a nun to take a leadership position when monks are present; even if a nun had been ordained for a hundred years, a monk ordained just one day would take seniority. Recent scholarship identifies these rules as a later addition to the Buddhist canon, most likely introduced to appease the Brahman power base, which intended to enshrine its view of women in the new religion after the Buddha’s death.
Regardless of the debate over scriptural authenticity, the eight garudhammas have rippled through time and space to affect the lives of Buddhist nuns to this day. They have a crushing effect on women’s expression of spiritual power and have perniciously ensured the invisibility of nuns and female teachers throughout the long history of Buddhist transmission. The demise of the lineage of fully ordained nuns in the Theravada school more than a thousand years ago is usually attributed to unfavorable external forces such as wars and famine. However, the undermining effect of the eight rules cannot be underestimated as a factor in extinguishing bhikkhuni sanghas.
The lost lineage of fully ordained nuns has been used by monks to argue that it’s impossible reinstate proper ordination. Overall, the cultural context that gave rise to these eight rules has created a wall that blocks nuns’ access to adequate resources and education, to participation in decision-making bodies that affect their lives, and to a supportive context that would enable the growth of confidence, leadership, and an abiding presence within the Buddha’s lineage.
The wall is cracking, though. It is true that Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos do not recognize full ordination for women, and neither do the Tibetan schools of Buddhism. Yet, in the last couple of decades, women have taken full ordination in Taiwan, where the lineage remains unbroken, and emerged as fully ordained nuns within the Tibetan and Theravada schools. Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusuma, one of the first Sri Lankan nuns to take full ordination, has been a pioneer in helping to reestablish the Theravada Buddhist order for women in Sri Lanka, where there are more than eight hundred bhikkhunis.
In Thailand there are now fifty nuns, about twenty bhikkhunis and thirty samaneris (ten-precept nuns). Despite considerable resistance from many monks, these cracks have provided a clearer view to reinstating full ordination. As Ajahn Sujato says, “It is our duty as monks under Vinaya [monastic code of conduct] to give the Going Forth to any sincere applicant, whether male or female.” This is a clear articulation of the Buddha’s intention that there be an obligation to confer full ordination to anyone who sincerely requests it.
Since Buddhism’s arrival on Western soil there has been a complex relationship between the religious forms that historically have enabled the transmission of dharma and the practice of dharma itself. The perpetuation of the eight rules, in particular, has fueled Western Buddhists’ discontent. For many years this discontent has been subdued by the exhortation that graciously accepting the tradition as given is part of true spiritual practice. However, as Western nuns grow in seniority, the use of such tactics to perpetrate inequality becomes increasingly unacceptable, even ridiculous. A former nunof the Thai Forest tradition explains:
There was much hypocrisy in the way the monks would encourage the nuns to “work with” and “accept” their low status. It was painful for nuns to be placed below or behind the newest junior monk in seating arrangements or in collecting alms food, no matter how long she’d been in the order―even if she was a teacher to that community. While the monks’ line grew and they each moved up in the hierarchical placement, the nuns would move down the line to accommodate the newest arrival.
Living in a monastery in California, I tried to convey to the senior monk how painful this situation was for nuns. He responded by saying that placement didn’t matter, that it was “just a perception”―implying perception of self that should be let go of. Yes it is perception, I said. And how would you perceive me if I were to take up my place in the line according to how long I had been in the order and not according to gender? Then I would be sitting right next to you and the other senior monk, and all the other junior monks would sit after me. How would you relate to me and how would you perceive me then? How do you think the other monks would relate to me and perceive me then; how would the lay people relate to me and perceive me? And how do you think I would perceive myself then, having been given appropriate placement in the order and not constantly construed as “lower” and junior to the monks? I am sure it would be quite different―even though it would be “only a perception.”
This is the thing. They would use the level of “ultimate truth” to encourage you to accept the low status and discrimination of women in the order. “Woman” and “man” are perceptions, labels… Ultimately there are no “women” and “men.” How true! But why then are the “perceived” men so resistant to the “perceived” women having equal placement in the order?
Though full ordination for nuns would not single-handedly resolve this level of gender inequity in the monastic form, it is nevertheless an essential platform from which discussion about these pressing issues can proceed. The prevailing argument that full ordination for women is not possible for “legal” reasons continues to serve the existing power structure and undermine any possibility of progress. This situation is by no means limited to the Ajahn Chah lineage, or the Theravada tradition. In 2007, an international conference was initiated by the Dalai Lama to investigate bringing back full ordination in the Tibetan tradition. More than four hundred scholars, monastics, and lay practitioners gathered in Hamburg, Germany, to spend several days exploring the role of Buddhist women in the sangha. But after dozens of scholastic papers presented every legal, ethical, and compassionate angle as to why it was timely, appropriate, and respectful of the Buddha’s intention to offer full ordination to women across all traditions, the proposal to do so remained stalled. One scholar summed it up succinctly: “Of course we’re not dealing with anything particularly rational here.”
The rigorous work of the Hamburg conference made it clear that full ordination was possible and always had been. It also showed how the suttas and the Vinaya could be manipulated according to a particular agenda. New generations of Buddhists, with access to translated scriptures and text-critical scholarship, are able to see more clearly the blatant discrimination against women, and take steps to overturn it. Increasingly, sexism within Buddhist tradition sits jarringly within Western culture where the sociopolitical norm―at least in public discourse and legislation―is gender parity.
Five Weighty Rules in Britain
Around the same time as the Perth ordinations there was a contrasting movement within the monasteries of the same lineage in Britain. In August 2009, Ajahn Sumedho―a peer of Ajahn Brahm and also one of Ajahn Chah’s first Western disciples―and a few of his senior monks imposed a “five-point agreement” on the nuns’ community of Amaravati and Cittaviveka monasteries. Fashioned on the eight garudhammas, these points assert the seniority of monks to nuns, and additionally block the nuns from taking, or seeking to take, full ordination within that lineage. Because bhikkhuni ordination has been banned in Thailand (in a royal edict in 1928), the nuns in the branch monasteries in Britain have a lesser ordination of siladhara. The ordination is barely recognized in Thailand and is not congruent with the larger movement of Buddhism. Sectarian arguments by some monks about loyalty to Thai elders and the roots of the Forest tradition have so far prevailed over a sense of loyalty to their sisters with whom they share the Buddhist monastic life.
Nevertheless, over the thirty years since the beginning of the nuns’ order in Britain there has been a slow evolution toward a more equitable status with monks. This has been in step with the broader social developments in Britain. However, the presentation of the five points seems to have abruptly stopped all sense of open dialogue and evolution. Moreover, the nuns in Britain were issued an ultimatum that further siladhara ordinations would cease―the siladhara do not as yet conduct their own ordinations―and their presence in the community would be unwelcome if they did not accept the points. The nuns were directed by the monks to keep this so-called negotiation confidential until the agreement had been signed off. As a consequence, the lay supporters of that community had no idea what they were supporting, and the nuns were denied access to external perspectives during the process. For the women involved, it suddenly seemed as rigid as the requirements imposed recently by the Vatican on Catholic nuns in the U.S., which those nuns characterized as a crackdown.
As one siladhara nun anonymously wrote, “This situation brings many questions to mind and heart. How can I still use a monastic vehicle that is so structurally unfriendly and prejudiced toward women as my path to liberation. How can I open up to my full potential of human birth and cultivate the heart based on the Brahmavihara in conditions that are constantly undermining me as a person just because of my gender? How can I live with integrity if I love being a monastic but find the ancient structure unresponsive to our modern times? Ever since I had the great blessing to meet the buddhadhamma many years ago, the compassionate aspect of the Buddha’s teaching has deeply resonated with my whole being. However, the domination of one group of people by another is out of alignment with the wisdom and compassion of the teaching of the Buddha.”
Just as the first nuns of the Buddha’s dispensation were constrained to do, so the nuns in the monasteries in Britain signed on the dotted line, metaphorically, so they could stay as nuns in the communities they helped build. Moreover, at the end of a recent ordination ceremony at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, Ajahn Sumedho, the ordaining preceptor, recited the five points and asked the new nuns whether they agreed to them. After they consented, the ordination was then finalized and the proceedings wrapped up. As such, the five points now appear to be a formal part of the ordination procedure.
The fine print in such contracts, however, carries a deadly sting. Many women are put off from ordaining―or disrobe after a period of time―as a direct result of the disdain they experience within monastic Buddhism. This is expressed clearly by a former monastic, her experience echoed by many:
Regarding the five points, I feel a lot of sadness. I disrobed after I was persuaded that insisting on democracy, transparency, equality, and mutual respect (between men and women as well as between juniors and seniors in the community) made me unfit to be a nun. I’m glad I held onto my values even though leaving was very painful for me. It pains me to think of how many good people the community has lost by not supporting them and nurturing their aspiration.
Where Do We Go From Here?
ringing back full ordination is a crucial step for women’s full participation within Buddhism as it is practiced today. However, it is only one step toward achieving gender equality within Buddhism. With due inquiry, there can remain no doubt that the impulse to resist women’s full participation in the Buddhist tradition comes not from the teachings of the Buddha, but from ignorance. The roots of the problem lie with sexism and it is there that the work needs to be located. The growing discontent expressed by women and by men who wish to practice in the West reveals a shift in the zeitgeist that we would do well to acknowledge, lest the monastic inheritance slip through our collective fingers.
No one owns the house of Buddhist monasticism. The renunciant path is our collective inheritance. It does not belong to the monks, and it is not theirs to confer or withhold at whim. How long will we allow women to be driven out of their monastic home rather than challenge the abuse of their freedom to practice fully within Buddhist monasticism? The persistence of gender inequality―within a broader cultural context that tolerates it less and less―threatens to bring the house down around us.
So we ask: What would it look like to relocate the “problem” of bhikkhuni ordination and gender equity within Buddhism to where it really belongs? The problem doesn’t belong with women who want to ordain, but with those who fear women’s full participation.
Developing insight into this fear is crucial; it has the potential to release any standoff over this issue. Such development requires robust personal inquiry, honest reflection, and the humility to recognize one’s own error. It is a struggle, no doubt. It risks bringing us into contact with each other in all our complexity, our strengths, and our vulnerabilities. But the honest effort by both women and men to inquire within for the roots of fear of the feminine can constitute an opening of the heart that makes dialogue possible. However painful, overwhelming, and challenging such a dialogue may be, surely it is a process we must have. The alternative is far worse: secrecy; nuns displaced or disrobed; monks who feel cut off from a more authentic engagement; ill-informed and sycophantic lay followers.
The mounting discussions about these issues among concerned Buddhists globally since November 2009 signifies a distinct shift in the relationship of lay supporters to the monastic sangha. Many supporters are informing themselves through dialogue with others, in order to ensure accountability and transparency within a tradition they treasure and wish to see flourish in the West. To that end thousands of people signed a petition urging monks within the Thai Forest tradition to acknowledge and support gender equality, to support bhikkhuni ordination, to revoke the five points imposed upon the siladhara order of nuns, to undo the expulsion of Ajahn Brahm, and to open up a dialogue with them.
The petition was presented to a meeting of the male abbots of the Wat Nong Pah Pong communities held in Thailand in December 2009―the same group whose members had participated in drafting the five points and the expulsion of Ajahn Brahm. Presented alongside the petition were comments from thousands of concerned Buddhists, commentary from scholars and from the bhikkhunis involved in the Perth ordinations, and letters in support of bhikkhunis.
The abbots did not issue a response to the thousands of petitioners. Instead a formulaic restatement of the position against Ajahn Brahm and the Perth ordinations, and a defence of the five points imposed on the siladhara order, was circulated among senior monastics of the tradition and posted on their website. There was no opening for a dialogue on these issues.
The express focus of many Buddhists involved in online discussions is now on marshaling energy to support the reestablishment of full ordination for women and on the dawning of gender equality within a tradition that speaks to the hearts of many Buddhist practitioners around the world.
Many committed people have worked hard to reestablish the bhikkhuni sangha in various parts of the world and fend off the attacks by those who oppose such change. It is one important step along the path to gender equity and the consequent good health of the sangha. To them we owe thanks. To those who persist in their antagonism toward the feminine, we are owed an honest explanation and the willingness to engage in dialogue. Right at the place of fissure is the opportunity for us to move together as a fourfold sangha. Collectively we can dispel the culture of fear, enter into dialogue and co-create a vital, inspired vision for our times. Let the choice be ours rather than that of a few who hide in the shadow of their saffron wall.