November 5, 2009

This is not a Schism

I was stunned to view the Buddhist Channel headline: “Ajahn Brahm excommunicated for performing Bhikkhuni Ordination in Australia.”

Then on Phra Noah Yuttadhammo’s blog, he writes: “An interesting topic, and indeed history in the making; new Bhikkhunis in Australia and a schism in the Thai forest sangha... I'm not sure which is of more significance.” What schism?

The Australian bhikkhuni ordination has generated some hard feelings in the many different corners of the Wat Nong Pa Pong lineage. There’s also quite a bit of hand-wringing on the sidelines. But use of the terms excommunication and schism constitute a reckless characterization of recent events.

These words embody very serious religious implications. While Ajahn Brahm (and the world) has been notified that he is now a persona non grata in the Wat Nong Pa Pong network, he has not been excommunicated. They neither formally disputed his status as a Theravada monk nor his authority to officiate and participate in religious ceremonies—they rather informed him that he is not welcome in their club. It’s not playing nice, but it’s not excommunication.

Phra Noah’s use of schism should likewise be avoided. Anyone raised on stories of Lord Buddha is well aware that schism is often a direct reference to the Bhagavan’s scriptural antagonist Devadatta. This word ought to be used with caution. The expulsion of Bodhinyana monastery from the WPP network is no more a schism than the suspension of a nation from the Commonwealth.

This post is not meant to trivialize current events. The bhikkhuni ordination and subsequent backlash are both significant and newsworthy events. But they shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.

The gravity of this situation is more political than religious. This fracas is very much a Buddhist issue, but we mustn’t confuse it as being a spiritual quarrel. I can expect more bitter words and much awkward silence to ensue. A formal schism of the Theravada sangha, however, is unlikely.

12 comments :

  1. I like your take on this event. It is very saddening that Ajahn Brahm chose to proceed with this in the manner that he did. I have found the teachings of the Ajahn Chah lineage and Ajahn Brahm in particular to be very accessible to me personally.

    In case you ahve seen it I copied a link to Ajahn Chandro's open letter to the WAS:
    http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=8,8666,0,0,1,0

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  2. Your point is well taken here Arun. He is still Ajahn Brahm not Mr. Brahm. And a political (politics meaning the wielding of power) disagreement among a certain group of monks does not throw the entire school or all of Thai Buddhism into disarray. Let's keep some perspective on this and not sensationalize.

    It would be nice if those taking the action against Ajahn Brahm would be more reasonable, in my opinion, but a lot of things would be nice if they came to pass. That's just not reality. So this thing has occurred and people will adjust and take it from here.

    Perhaps, once the upset from the situation wears off some fruitful dialogue will occur. To get people to talk of a situation is the first step to it's resolution.

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  3. Ajahn Chandako says that the monks of WPP think that Ajahns Brahm and Sujato performed the ordination becoz they wanted to go down in history as the heroes who revived the Theravada bhikkhuni tradition. The fact is the tradition was revived in the 80s and there are hundreds of bhikkhunis now, so it's a little late to claim credit. If Ajahn Chandako is talking only of the WPP lineage then what credit is there? unless these WPP monks believe that their monastery is the centre of gravity of Theravada.

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  4. As an ex-disciple of Ajahn Brahm ( my ordination name was Ven. Anuruddha ) who was resident at Bodhinyana for six years, and was present when the decision to proceed with the bhikkuni ordination was in gestation, I can only applaude his decision, unreservedly! Ajahn has two enduring characteristics that equip him for leadership; courage and vision. I am currently undertaking study for a doctorate in Buddhism, cognitive neuroscience and psychoanalysis. Bodhinyana monastery is my fieldwork site. I know Ajahn Chandako and was, as a novice monk invited by him to come and help build his monastery in New Zealand. He is a very good monk and has extremely good meditation; however, as much as I support his right to express his views, I don't think he has all of the facts. I suggest that any of your contributors who might be interested, consult Ajahn Brahmali's response to his letter at the bswa.org.au website. The future of Buddhism is in the WEST! The gerentocracy that reacted in some small degree within Thailand, I believe, are not receptive to the new dimension to which Theravada Buddhism has developed, within, specifically Australia. We do not have the problems that have ensued with the reception of other forms of Buddhism; principally, as Theravada bhikkhus' and bhikkunis' they are governed INTERNALY i.e, psychologically by the Vinaya, which then affects actions of thought, speech and action. There is NO action against either Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Sujato nor Ajahn (Sister) Vayama according to the Vinaya in their decision to proceed with the full ordination of suitable candidates for such office. I would suggest that this would not even have raised the slightest murmur of dissent if the Buddha was alive today; which he IS in the Dhamma, the Vinaya and the Sangha. Let us rejoice for the blessings that we have, due to this wholesome decision. Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

    Keith Eldershaw

    Visiting Scholar
    The University of Western Australia.

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  5. Hi Keith - can I post your comments on the Discussion board of Women & the Forest Sangha on face book - in response to A.Chandako's letter already posted there?

    Thanissara
    www.dharmagiri.org

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  6. Of course, Thanissara! Please feel free, the more information the better. Incidently, I was instructing a Mahayana nun at the Scholars' Centre at the University of Western Australia who has written a thesis entitled--The "Other" Path: The Bhikkhuni ( Buddhist Feminist Nun ) Quest for Liberation. Even though in Theravada terms she would not be considered fully ordained, her devotion to the path is unquestioned. I have one reservation: why do you have "anger" in your blog title? I am not criticising, but the Buddha was explicit regarding the unwholesome mind states that emerge through anger. However, that said, there are close friends of mine that I shared robes with that are very interested in your blog. Kindest regards, Keith.

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  7. To say that Ajahn Brahm has been excommunicated and that this is a schism is not a ‘wrekless characterization’. To be excommunicated is ‘to be expelled from a religious organization’ and a schism is ‘a disagreement within an organization, particularly a religious one, causing its members to divide into separate groups’. It seems to me that this is exactly what has happened – but within the Ajahn Chah monastic movement, not within Theravada as a whole. Both those things happened within the Theravadin Sangha centuries ago. Monks of the different sects and nikayas in the different Theravadin countries and between the different countries do not and will not hold joint Sangha functions. Indeed in Thailand Mahanikaya monks are not even welcome to stay in Dhammayut monasteries and visa versa. The Ajahn Braham affair is but another division and Theravada will continue to stumble along.

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  8. Yes, you are right. The teachings of the Buddha ( the original teachings; hence Thera, Elders ) do keep stumbling along. The real teachings of the Buddha come to light in the mind, when one is faced with REAL difficulties of life; not armchair theorising. As Ajahn once said,"If you are serious about Buddhism, you take robes."

    Are you serious about Budddhism?

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  9. @Ruddha: To the question about the use of “angry”—this blog was initially set up with a very narrow vision within the spirit of Asian American social activism. The title of this blog is an admittedly shameless imitation of Angry Asian Man, Angry Little Asian Girls, etc. which address the American stereotype of passive and submissive Asians. In the context of the American Buddhist community (and to a lesser extent, the larger Western Buddhist community), the goal was aimed specifically at responding directly to rhetoric which marginalizes Asian Americans and Asians in general. For my two favorite class of examples: rhetoric which excludes Asian Buddhists from Western Buddhism, and rhetoric which suggests that the Buddhism practiced by Asians is somehow inferior. The scope of this blog has, since then, somewhat broadened.

    @Ven. Shravasti Dhammika: Thank you for your comments. If you are going to cite me in your comments, I encourage you to cite me properly; perhaps next time you might use copy/paste. First, I agree with your definition of excommunication, but it seems you and I will differ as to the extent to which the Wat Nong Pa Pong network constitutes a religious entity. I certainly understand your comparison to the nikayas, but I disagree such that I do not understand WPP to be on the same level. You are giving them too much credit as a religious entity. If you feel they are indeed comparable, I would encourage you to educate me. Second, your claims about the immiscibility of the Dhammayuttika and Maha Nikaya hinge on your use of the words “in Thailand,” which is not as I understand the conventional sense of either schism or excommunication—acts defined by nation, not by religious association. I know from personal experience that this restriction—if it can be considered as such—is often breached elsewhere in Southeast Asia and abroad. Lastly, I do not see the Ajahn Brahm division as an enduring one unless the parties involved strive to cement it as such. I just got off the phone two hours ago with a dear friend and avid bhikkhuni advocate at a Thai Wat Nong Pa Pong branch monastery in Thailand; for the sake of protecting his anonymity, I will just say that his perceptions on the situation from within flatly contradict your perceptions from without.

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  10. Dear Arun, Thank you for providing me with a clear explanation of your blog. I imagine that you are writing from the United States? In Australia; well, specifically in Western Australia where I reside, the Buddhist Society here is a cross-section of our diverse multi-ethnic society. For instance, within Bodhinyana Monastery alone ( Ajahn Brahm's residence )as a monk I lived with: Norwegian, German, English, Australian, New Zealand, Thai, Malay, American and Vietnamese, as well as monks from Australian and Japanese parentage. OK! I am trained in Japanese swordsmanship, and unbeknown to me my sword teachers' son presented himself at the monastery for ordination ( which he duly was admitted into )---so we had, and still do have a polyglot of representations of humanity in W.A.

    The important thing, to my mind Arun is that the Dhamma that is taught by Ajahn Brahm is based upon sila and then meditation; as you know he avows jhana---Bliss in the mind; bliss in our lives. The Buddha taught for ALL no matter what caste; there are specific rules in the Vinaya governing ANY form of condescention or bigotry towards any member of the sangha---no matter who they are. Women have EVERY right to ordain and restrain themselves towards attaining the final release from samsara. If you are open to allowing your hearts' through training the mind to achieve the bramavihara: karuna, mudita, metta and uppekkha, nothing but good will come from this.

    Kindest regards, Keith.

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  11. Hi Sangha,

    Haven't we got enough fights and anger in this world? Why adding more? Is this good for the Buddhit community? Let the boiling water cools down so that the bottom of it is clear.Sokhihotu.

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