I suppose that every human institution has its dirty laundry. The sutta about the monks at Kosambi shows that this was true even in the Buddha’s own time and even in his own community. So it isn’t too surprising that Buddhism today has plenty of dirty laundry, too. One of the dirtiest of these pieces of laundry is the way women are treated, particularly those remarkable women who ordain as bhikkhunis, nuns. (Bhikkhuni is the Pali word for nun.)
On the positive side of the ledger, the Buddha established, for the first time, an order of nuns. He was entreated by his step-mother, Mahapajapati, and his wife, Yasodara, to allow them to ordain. They must have been extraordinary women. Both of them became enlightened. The Buddha did, however, add extra rules for the nuns.
India, then as now, was an extremely sexist society. Any woman who was not traveling under the protection of her father, brother or husband was fair game. A man could do anything to her and there was no protection under the law. Thus, to allow for the full ordination of women was a very radical step. Some of the extra rules for women had to do with their own protection in such a society. For example, no bhikkhuni was allowed to travel alone, and bhikkhunis had to travel with at least one monk. [Note 1.]
Bhikkhuni ordination could only happen if both monks and nuns were present. If, indeed, this rule goes back to the Buddha, the intent may have been to make bhikkhuni ordination more palatable to Indian society. Remember that nuns as well as monks were dependent on alms food. The Indian people had to accept the idea of the full ordination of women to keep them fed.
So now we fast forward to the 21st century. The bhikkhuni ordination died out in the countries of southern Asia a long time ago. It never actually made it to Thailand, and it died out in countries like Burma and Sri Lanka. Because there are currently no existing bhikkhunis to give ordination to new bhikkhunis, according to the strict letter of the monastic code, this is no longer possible.
There is a lineage that continued unbroken in the Mahayana traditions, into China. This lineage has been used in recent years to ordain, once again, women in the southern Asia traditions. However many monks do not recognize this ordination, and this is where the story gets really ugly.
You might think that, well, this is an Asian problem. No self-respecting westerner would deny a woman the right to fully ordain. Sadly this is not true. Even very (and I mean very, very) prominent western monks, like Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Thanissaro, have refused to fully ordain women. Ajahn Sumedho even went beyond the restrictions of the old monastic code, adding news ones.
I can’t possibly go into all of the details of this dispute here. To be honest, I don’t even understand all of the arguments. It’s like listening to lawyers argue, which ought to tell you something right there. Once you start sounding like a civil suite, you have probably left the realm of anything remotely related to what the Buddha taught, things like love, compassion, wisdom, and an end to suffering.
That latter is, for me, a grounding centerpiece to any issue related to Buddhadhamma, Buddhism, Buddhist institutions, practice, or anything else remotely related to the word “Buddha”. The Buddha famously said, “I teach only suffering and the end to suffering.”. It is the Buddha’s Prime Directive. Everything else that he taught is a fuller explanation of that. Sometimes when I am confused about an issue, I try to remember to come back to that basic, most important premise
For example, take the issue of euthanasia. The first precept is quite simple; do not kill. But the basic premise is to end suffering, and you can certainly imagine circumstances under which the first precept is in conflict with ending, or at least reducing, suffering.
So when I start reading Ajahn Sumedho’s disturbing directive for the women of his own Sangha (http://bhikkhuni.net/perth/5%20Points%20for%20the%20UK%20Siladharas.pdf), and Ajahn Thanissaro’s almost equally disturbing legalese that describes Ajahn Brahm’s ordination of women in Australia (http://bhikkhuni.net/perth/Thanissaro%20Bhikkhu%20Vinaya%20Refutation%20of%20Bhikkhuni%20Ordination.pdf), I go back to the Prime Directive. How do their positions lead to an end of suffering?
(One thing that I have noticed over the years is that ideologues use whatever is the accepted platform to prove their own point. The U.S. Constitution gets twisted and mangled almost beyond belief sometimes. People who do this start with their own opinion, and then look for ways to make some document prove what they want it to. People like this are not trying to find the truth or to do the correct thing. It is – to use the Buddha’s phrase – a “thicket of views.” People who want something to happen find a way to make it happen; those who don’t want something to happen find a way to keep it from happening.)
This whole issue is like being invited to Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house, and then listening to his family argue all day. At a certain point, frankly, I don’t care any more. I just want to get away. It’s not what I signed up for.
However, there is a punch line, and it isn’t all bad. It relates to what happened at Kosambi. What ended up happening at Kosambi is that the lay followers got to the same point that I have. Really? You want us to give alms food to you guys? [Note 2.]
This is where being a lay person has its perks.
I have read a number of well-meaning articles and blog entries by monks advising lay people how to think about this dispute. One of them in particular is a monk I revere. And I say this with all due respect: If you guys can’t get this right, then we lay people need to be the ones to make you get it right. Your advice on how we should think about this is duly noted.
The Vinaya is 2400 years old. It is an amazing document. But we are not even sure what parts are original and what are not. There are multiple versions of the Vinaya that have survived.
Further, the more you study Buddhism around the world, the more you realize that hardly anyone follows the Vinaya. Even the ones who claim to have their own interpretation of the Vinaya. Not all of those interpretations are in agreement.
Around the world, very senior, learned monks have different opinions on full bhikkhuni ordination. Wouldn’t it make sense then to – gasp! – actually do the right thing? Wouldn’t that be easier? Better? More correct? Lead to less suffering?
Discrimination against women is illegal in many countries. The U.S. and the United Kingdom are two of them. It is against the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It also happens to be wrong. Shouldn’t the Buddhist monastic sangha at least come up to speed with civil law?
The way the system was set up in ancient India has a mutually dependent relationship between the monastics and the lay people. The monastics devote their lives to pursuing the ultimate questions of life. The lay people support them, as long as the monastics do not abuse their privileges. In such a system, monastics are actually expected to meet the social standards.
So to all of you out there who are lay people, I strongly urge you to stop supporting monasteries that discriminate against women. I don’t want to name them here because some of them have changed their policies over the years, and I don’t want to commit their names to a permanent blog. But you ought to be able to find out by asking. But be prepared to be legalesed. You may get a very convincing and nice sounding response that basically says, “No.”
Part of the power to change this wrong is the same power that the lay people had in Kosambi. Let’s use it.
Note 1. There is a particularly gruesome story in the Vinaya of a nun being raped while traveling.
Note 2. : This part of the story isn’t in the Majjhima Nikaya sutta. It is in the Vinaya, the monastic code.
Note 3. The Dalai Lama has been quite proactive in his support of the full ordination and full rights for women. I personally know of one bhikkhuni monastery in Nepal (http://thrangutaraabbey.org) that in a fairly short period of time has gone from being almost hopelessly poor to having fine – beautiful, even – accommodations, and first class training for the nuns.
Note 4. If you want to support the pioneering efforts of women to fully ordain as bhikkhunis, there are two places in the U.S. I recommend are The Saranaloka Foundation (http://www.saranaloka.org) and Dhammadharini (http://www.dhammadharini.net). There are many others, as well.