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.

Are Asians Against Nuns?

On his blog, Ajahn Sujato was asked if the sexism he described in the English Sangha Trust reflected an Asian British mentality—“That’s the only configuration that I can imagine would create this governing body. The women’s rights movement took birth in England.” Ajahn Sujato responds:

The EST is not comprised of Asian British, it is an old-school organization which has, so far as I am aware, always been made up primarily of ‘English British’.

This is an important point, for it is often misunderstood that ‘Asians’ will be less interested in a fair go for women, and that the socially progressive movement will be stimulated by the West. This is very far from the case. I know several Asian women whose active support for bhikkhuni ordination was stimulated by their shock at seeing how discriminated the nuns in England were.

For most of the Asian Buddhist world, bhikkhunis are a normal part of life. They are an integral part of Buddhism in lands east and north of Thailand, and have become widely accepted by the Sri Lankan people (who, may I add, are among our major supporters here at Santi).

There is a popular racist argument that assumes that the West couldn’t possibly be sexist, that the bhikkhuni issue is really an Asian problem. This notion can be defended by anecdote. I have personally witnessed sexism as an entrenched issue within several Asian societies, and I also recognize the great advances in the West towards gender equality over the last century. My mother was raised to find a husband and pop out kids—when she retired, she was making more money than my father. But that’s not to say that Asia is sexist while the West is post-gender. (Tell that to Hillary Clinton!) There are anecdotes, there are trends, and there are racist conclusions—it is important not to confuse these. Best to steer clear of the latter.

Bhikkhuni Ordination in Australia

Wisdom Publications’ recent blog post on the bhikkhuni ordination at Bodhinyana monastery sent me off reading through Ajahn Sujato’s blog account.

22nd October 2009: remember that date. That’s when it all changed. That’s when the Sangha of Bodhinyana Monastery and Dhammasara Nun’s monastery, with the support of an international group of bhikkhunis, performed the first Theravada bhikkhuni ordination in Australia, and the first bhikkhuni ordination in the Thai Forest Tradition anywhere in the world. Here’s how it all came about.

This ordination has been on the order of a small earthquake. There are quite a few senior Thai monks who weren’t at all happy to see this come to pass. Ajahn Sujato providesupdatesonthesituationonhisblog. You can learn more about the contemporary bhikkhuni lineage at the Alliance for Bhikkhunis and the Australian Sangha Association Bhikkhuni ordination committee. If you are interested in expressing your support, you can do so here.

Much to Offer

Phra Cittasamvaro writes about the custom of the offering cloth and the issue of contact between men, women and celibate monks and nuns.

The etiquette with the offering cloth is this: if a female is offering food, clothing or medicine to a monk, he will lay a cloth/bowl or other suitable item in front of him. The lady puts the item on the cloth and it is then ‘offered’ – which means it has formally been given to the Sangha of monks. And of course vice versa between nuns and laymen.


Things are ‘offered’ in this way so there is no discrepancy between what has been given to the monk and what has not – so that he does not take something on presumption, that the owner might not feel is appropriate. If a layperson touches the offered item after this point, it is then considered ‘unoffered’ and the monk will not take it for his own use.

The post ends with a discussion of cultural traditions and attitudes (namely attitudes towards others’ cultures). It’s certainly nice to discover that some of the customs I’ve witnessed (such as the “drop method”) are not merely idiosyncratic customs of particular monks I know.

Korea for Bhikkhunis

The Korea Times reports on an interview with Ven. Myoeom, discussing the situation of Korean Buddhist nuns.

Although discrimination can be found in nearly all countries, the head bhikkhuni at Bongnyeongsa Temple, a Suwon branch of the Jogye Order in South Korea, said such extreme cases of prejudice is rarely found here.

There are no gender differences in Buddhism, said the Ven. Myoeom in an interview with The Korea Times, which minimizes the number of cases of discrimination in temples. In fact, age is also not recognized because what matters most is the “maturity of one’s soul”

It is well-known that sanghas in the Mahayana tradition are much more welcoming than those in the Theravada tradition, although the past fifteen years have also seen the emergence of a growing bhikkhuni movement.