My First Kathina

This post is several months overdue, but I hope you will no less enjoy this interview about one practitioner’s first experience of the Kathina festival.

I celebrated Kathina last year with a group of friends at Metta Forest Monastery. Larene is one of these friends. She is a practitioner, artist, teacher, and caring spirit (in no particular order), and I was honored to spend the day in such good company and to be able to interview her about this Buddhist holiday experience.

Who are you?

I am a twenty-something Asian American Buddhist living in Los Angeles county.

What did you do on this holiday?

On this holiday, I went to Wat Metta Monastery with a couple of friends and a couple of other younger students in my Buddhist community. We went the night before the festival to offer help with whatever they needed to get done. On the morning of the festival, we woke up around 5:30am and went to the chanting service and meditation. Later, we helped with whatever needed to be helped with and took a short hike with a couple of other college students, who also came to volunteer and partake in the festival. We participated in the ceremony in which the monks received their robes and later enjoyed all the delicious Thai food that people made. Afterwards, 10 to 15 volunteers helped to break down all the tents and put away all the chairs. I had a great time!

What is the Buddhist significance of this holiday?

I actually was not aware of this holiday previously, because the tradition that I am more familiar with is the Mahayana tradition. I am not sure, but I believe that Kathina is more of a Theravada tradition, or at least, it is the tradition of Thai forest monks. It is during this holiday that Buddhist monks receive a new set of robes, which happens once every year. It is also significant as a symbolic representation of the lay peoples’ support of the monks at this monastery. The other significant aspect of this holiday is the festivities in the form of food. Usually, laypeople will prepare food at the monastery under tents that are set up for the holiday. During the actual day of the festival, the lay people will line up with bowls of rice and a spoon; as the monks of the monastery walk down the line of people, each person will put some rice into their bowl, another symbolic gesture of the lay peoples’ support. After the ceremony, in which the monks are formally offered the robes, there is a big festival, where the food people bring is shared with everyone.

What does this holiday mean to you?

I attended this holiday because I didn’t know much about it, and also because I had heard about it from a friend. I saw this as an opportunity to better know and understand other Buddhist traditions and also as another way to volunteer. Because many tents had to be set up and broken down (in addition to other preparations) for the festival, I basically went to serve with other people.

If you’re interested in reading more holiday interviews, you can find them here and here.

In Memory of Bana Bhante, 1920-2012

I just learned from the Daily Star that the Venerable Sadhanananda Mahathera has died. He was the most revered Buddhist monk in Bangladesh, commonly considered to be an arahant. Like many others, I always referred to him as Bono Bhante, his nickname in the local Chittagonian dialect, a name which translates literally as “Forest Monk.”

If you remember Luangta Maha Bua, you can probably get a sense of how important Bana Bhante was to Bangladeshi Buddhists. He was of the Chakma people, an ethnic minority, and had a reputation for clear, incisive and straightforward speaking. Many of his years in the monkhood were spent practicing in the forest. He lived into his nineties, having witnessed his native Chittagong occupied under British colonialism, partitioned into Pakistan, and thrown into turmoil following Bangladesh’s liberation. He was ordained for 63 years, and he was a widely-respected living Buddhist institution in a majority Muslim nation.

When I was much younger, I had dreamed of traveling to the beautiful Chittagong Hill Tracts to pay my respects to Bana Bhante. It seems now the best donation I can give is to share his story with you. You can read his biography online. You can also download an English-language book of his sermons, thanks to a contributor on Dhamma Wheel.

If you’ve never heard of Buddhists in Bangladesh before, you can read more in other posts I have written on the topic. I especially encourage you to learn more about the struggle for self-determination of the Chakma people in Chittagong. As I wrote before

Bangladesh’s Chittagong division is home to a large number of Buddhists, including the meditation masters Dipa Ma and Anagarika Munindra. These teachers in particular had a profound impact on Buddhism both in the West and elsewhere in Asia far beyond their native Chittagong. The Buddhists of Bangladesh, however, have no Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi to direct the world’s attention to their plight. They pursue their quest for liberty and justice largely in the shadow of the world’s attention.

And now they have lost one of their most venerated Buddhist leaders.

Tribute to Preah Ros Mey, 1925-2010

A leader of Rhode Island’s Khmer community and president of America’s first Khmer temple recently passed away.

[Temple Vice President] Chea also credited Mey with keeping alive the teachings and legacy of Preah Maha Ghosanada, considered the supreme patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism until his death two years ago. Ghosanada and his supporters founded the temple (the Khmer Buddhist Society of Rhode Island). The temple served as a spiritual anchor for Cambodian Buddhists in Rhode Island and across the country.
You can read more about his life and dedication to the Buddhist community at The Providence Journal online.

(Photo credit to Andrew Dickerman/The Providence Journal.)

Vassa Begins

This week began with Asalha Puja, the holiday commemorating Lord Buddha’s recitation of the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta. Below I’ve collected links of some other bloggers who have written related thoughts.

For this Vassa, I’m committing myself to sitting at least an hour a day. I usually fail to make time for sitting every day, so we’ll have to see how well this goes. Hopefully I can maintain this habit for all of Vassa—and onward too…

Yay Theravada!

In a most intriguing presentation today at the Buddhism without Borders conference, Todd Pereira discards the notion that Anagarika Dharmapala initiated American contact with Theravada in 1893. Instead he looks back even further to August 16, 1829, on which date the famous conjoined brothers Chang and Eng stepped foot on American soil. It may very well be is certainly the case that these brothers later converted to Christianity—they are buried in the graveyard of a Baptist church they had helped build—but their arrival no less stirred up many questions on religion, if not merely the religious imagination.

The connection here to a robust Theravada Buddhist philosophy and practice is, admittedly, exceedingly tenuous. More than anything, the notion that these brothers might not be Christian (even if they already were) opened the door a little more to the possibilities of religion beyond the Abrahamic context of nineteenth century America. Was it an introduction of Buddhism at all? I’m leaning towards doubt.*

In the broader civil rights context, the brothers were true pioneers in Asian American history. They were probably the first Asians to marry white Americans, to be American citizens and to vote in American elections. In less contemporarily popular American firsts, they also grew tobacco, owned slaves and their sons fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War! At this point in his speech, Todd Perreira smiled at the audience, stuck his tongue in his cheek, and yelled, “Yay Theravada!”

I look forward to his published research, which includes much more than the (again, admittedly tenuous) story of Chang and Eng Bunker. Although most Theravada temples were established by Asian immigrants who came after 1965, Buddhist Americans seem all too quick to forget those who came before. Some of my favorite stories include the Buddhist monarch who offered Lincoln assistance in the Civil War, or even the Buddhist monarch born on American soil.

*Update: Many thanks to a certain scholar who kindly pointed out off-the-blog that as the Bunkers self-identified as Baptists, they and their descendants deserve to have this remembered. The post has been changed accordingly.

A Letter from Bhikkhuni Yifa

Check out a letter on the Buddhist Channel by Ven. Yifa on the October bhikkhuni ordination in Australia. Although also a scholar of the Vinaya, she couches her words in a different framework than the legalist exchanges that have dominated much recent discussion among Theravada monastics. She also includes a quote from Edwin Markham, whose words are particularly apt.

They drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout!
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took them in.

She closes by saying, “There is a simplistic impression that all Theravada monks are against women’s ordination. That is not true. Fo Guang Shan has given several international ordinations; they were all supported by different groups of Theravada monks. Is it possible to use a ‘humane’ way to reconsider this issue rather than focusing on the letter of the law?”

Back from Chicago!

I just returned from a trip to Chicago, where I complained incessantly about the lack of 80 degree weather. Prompted by a question from Richard Harrold, one of the places I returned to was Wat Phrasriratanamahadhatu. Years ago I used to go there for chanting and meditation, and also for some of the major holidays. I also swung by Wat Khmer Metta, where some close friends of mine used to serve as monks. If any readers have visited either of these temples, I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Photos below!

(The larger space; front entrance on Broadway.)
Wat Khmer Metta
There is a lion in front!

Collected Responses on Dhammadarini

Little was I aware that these posts are all available on the Dhammadarinisite! All due to not following through on a single link on Ajahn Sujato’s original post. For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that of those who responded to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, four of them have a unique stake in this argument. At the same time, these letters reveal a concern that Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s letter may come to be viewed as a sort of Vinayic responsa—and thus authoritative. The non-Asian monastic communities seem to have clearly drawn the lines by now. If there’s anyone left out, I’d love to know who. As Ajahn Sujato pointed out in a previous post, monks generally seem to get along, even when one group may hold the validity of another’s ordination in question. Bhikkhunis will find themselves in a similarly uncomfortable position for a while, but I am optimistic that they will find the support they need to establish enduring roots. Now it’s time for me to finish my pumpkin pie and go enjoy Thanksgiving Day.

Grey Areas of the Vinaya

In his response to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s letter, Ajahn Brahm chooses not to lock horns with the analysis. Instead he steps back and points out that the issue in question is one where more than one opinion can hold. “Grey areas of the Vinaya” is the term he uses. He proposes that when we find ourselves with more than one legal interpretation to follow, best to follow the more compassionate ones.

The Vinaya Rules and the Perth Bhikkhuni Ordination

The recent argument by the respected monk and scholar, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, suggests that the recent bhikkhuni ordination in Perth was invalid on the basis of Vinaya (the monastic legal code). While I admire his scholarship and dedication to Buddhism in the West, there are grounds for looking at the matter in a different way.

The length and complexity of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s paper demonstrates that it is a difficult argument to prove. Any argument that is based on the principle of comparing authoritative statements on the Vinaya by the Buddha, and teasing out their meaning, will always be ambiguous. Inferences can travel alternative paths and lead to very different conclusions.

For example, bhikkhuni pacittiya 83 gives a pacittiya to a female preceptor who ordains more than one bhikkhuni per year and a dukkata to the other nuns who participate in the ceremony. Conspicuous by its absence, in both the Pitaka and the commentary, is any statement that those thus ordained are not valid bhikkhunis. This can be compared to the monks’ pacittiya 65 that gives a pacittiya to a male preceptor who ordains someone underage, a dukkata to the monks who participate in the ceremony, and there is a statement that the ordination is invalid. One can infer, from comparing these two rules, that if the Buddha had intended a breach of bhikkhuni pacittiya 83 to make the ordination invalid, then he would have stated so.

About thirty years ago, I coined the term “grey areas of Vinaya”. The question posed by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – “is a sanghakamma invalid when one of the participants knows that a rule is being broken” – is a nice legal point, but clearly qualifies as a grey area of Vinaya. It has become wise practise for the Sangha, when faced with grey areas of Vinaya, to follow the more compassionate interpretation. The respected Thai scholar Phra Brahmagunabhorn (P.A. Payutto), stated to me that “the knowledge and observance of the principles, esp., of the Vinaya rules should be as complete as possible on the one hand, and the matter should be treated with as best Metta and compassion (sic.) as possible on the other. Decision should be made by the Sangha that is best informed and compassionate.” Such is especially advisable in the current case where the reason for the original pacittiya offense, a temporary situation of crowding in the Bhikkhuni Monastery close to the Jeta Grove, hardly applies in present times.

So, may the fourfold assembly recognise this as a grey area of Vinaya and choose the more compassionate path.

Ajahn Brahm
Monday, 23rd November 2009

Many thanks to Sobhana Bhikkhuni for sharing.

Why is 2 or 3 OK?

Ajahn Brahmali provides another response to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s letter. Several of these points are also elaborated upon at more length in Sudhamma bhikkhuni’s response.
Reposting all these letters from Facebook is exhausting, so I must continually thank Sobhana Bhikkhuni for the time set aside to share these.

A Response to Ajahn Thanissaro’s Letter on the Simultaneaous Ordination of 2 or 3 Bhikkhunis

In his recent letter to Ajahn Nyanadhammo (posted on the dhammalight website) Ajahn Thanissaro makes the case that ordaining 2 or 3 bhikkhunis simultaneous is invalid, and consequently so is the recent ordination in Perth. I am not persuaded by Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument, and the rest of this letter is an attempt to substantiate why.

First of all, I agree with Ajahn Thanissaro (see part 12 of his letter) that sanghakamma should be done without defects and that it is not satisfactory to deviate from the Vinaya on grounds of compassion. One can perhaps interpret the Vinaya in a compassionate way, but not altogether ignore its statutes. It follows that if the ordination performed in Perth can be shown to be invalid, I would certainly accept that. (Ajahn Brahm has specifically told me that this is his position too.) From the point of view of the newly ordained bhikkhunis, they would clearly be in an untenable position if they had serious doubts about the validity of their ordination. Further, since it seems that a large number, perhaps most, existing Theravada bhikkhunis have been ordained by the same procedure as the one used in Perth, the issues brought up by Ajahn Thanissaro are clearly of great importance.

Given the above, I have read through Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument carefully. My conclusion is that, as his argument stands, he has not shown that a bhikkhuni ordination in which 2 or 3 candidates are ordained simultaneously is invalid. I will now examine Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument, starting with his point 11 where he argues directly from the Canonical Vinaya.

In subpoint 11b Ajahn Thanissaro states that “There are no examples of transaction statements authorized in the Canon where the sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail breaking a rule”. Actually, on careful consideration, there are several such examples. According to Mv I 70.1-3 a bhikkhu incurs a dukkata for ordaining someone without a bowl and/or robes. The ordination itself, however, seems to be valid, since this section (i.e. Mv I 70) stands in direct contrast to the immediately preceding one (Mv I 69.4) where the ordination is not valid. The commentary supports this interpretation by stating outright that the ordination is valid. Now, regardless of whether the ordinand has a complete set of bowl and/or robes, the sanghakamma statement of the ordination always states that he/she does (Mv I 76.10). In the case where the candidate does not have a complete set, everyone who partakes in the ordination would know that this was the case (in an earlier part of the ordination procedure (Mv I 76.3) the bowl and robes are pointed out to the candidate) and thus the ordination statement would amount to a conscious lie. Thus, although it is clear that this ordination is valid, the sanghakamma statement involves a deliberate lie, which of course is a pacittiya offense under pacittiya 1. And, contrary to Ajahn Thanissaro, in the case where it is known that a candidate for ordination does not have a bowl and/or robes, “the sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail the breaking of a rule” and it would still be valid. It follows that, because Mv I 70 implicitly allows the ordination of someone without a bowl and/or robes, it also establishes a situation where the procedure intrinsically entails the breaking of a rule.

And this is not the only case. The same passage at Mv I 70 also states that the bhikkhus involved in ordaining someone without a bowl and/or robes incur a dukkata offense. The monks involved would be performing a sanghakamma that intrinsically entails breaking a rule but which nevertheless would be valid. Another example is the declaration in the ordination statement, whether this in fact is true or not, that the candidate is “free from obstructing things”. Again, the ordination is valid in most instances even when the candidate is not free from these obstructions. 

Ajahn Thanissaro then states, in point 11c, that “Thus the allowance at Mv I 74.3 – allowing a single proclamation to mention two or three candidates for bhikkhu ordination – cannot be extended to bhikkhunis, for such a statement would intrinsically be ‘apart from the Vinaya … apart from the Teacher’s instruction’.” But since I have just shown that it is possible to perform a valid ordination and at the same time incur a pacittiya or dukkata offense, this part no longer holds. It is clearly undesirable to perform an ordination while committing an offense, and one should obviously avoid this if at all possible, but it does not void the procedure. As a consequence of this, the rest of Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument, 11c-11f, also fails.

There is another reason why Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument does not hold. The Vinaya is quite clear about the grounds on which any sanghakamma is invalid, and these do not include the situation where the “form of the statement would intrinsically entail the breaking of as rule”. The sort of factors that are required to make an ordination valid include the following:

  • The candidate to be ordained is present;
  • The candidate is 20 years old or more;
  • The candidate is not one of several types of ‘unqualified’ persons, or an animal;
  • The quorum for performing the ordination is complete;
  • The Sangha is united (vagga); that is, all the monks within the sima are present at the ordination, or they have given their consent;
  • The ordination statement contains exactly one motion (ñatti) and three announcements (kammavaca), in that order;
  • Nobody present speaks out against the ordination;
  • The procedure performed is an ordination, not some other sanghakamma.

It is only if such requirements – that is, requirements that are specifically mentioned in the Vinaya – are not met that the ordination fails, and only in these cases is the ordination considered “apart from the Vinaya … apart from the Teacher’s instruction” and “not a transaction and should not be carried out”. Any supposed grounds for failure that fall outside of what is specified in the Vinaya are a matter of personal opinion only, and cannot be a universally accepted standard. Since, in my view, Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument is a matter of personal opinion, it cannot be accepted as universally valid. 

In general, according to the Vinaya the following circumstances need to be satisfied for any sanghakamma to be valid:

“And how, monks, is a (sangha-)kamma united and in accordance with the Dhamma? … If, monks, concerning a (sangha-)kamma with one motion and three announcements, the motion is established first (and) then the (sangha-)kamma is performed with three announcements; the bhikkhus who should be present are present; consent has been received from those who should give consent; those who are present do not speak against the act – then the (sangha-)kamma is united and in accordance with the Dhamma.” (Mv IX 3.9)

Again, there is nothing here about the validity of sanghakamma depending on its being performed without breaking other Vinaya rules, or indeed that it depends on “the sheer form of the statement” not intrinsically entailing the breaking of a rule (see Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 11b).

At this point I would like to return to Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 5 where he declares that “This sort of transaction statement, because it intrinsically entails the breaking of a rule, would thus be totally unauthorized.” The words “totally unauthorized” are unclear and emotionally loaded. It is certainly true that nowhere in the Canonical Vinaya is such an ordination statement explicitly “authorized”, and if this is what Ajahn Thanissaro means by “totally unauthorized” then I have no problem with it. But when he goes on to state that this means that the ordination is “apart from the Vinaya … apart from the Teacher’s instruction” and “not a transaction and should not be carried out” he goes too far. As I have already shown, it is quite possible to break a pacittiya rule while performing an ordination and for the ordination still to be fully valid.

I have already responded to Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 6 (in my response to his point 11) but to recapitulate: in Mv I 70 there are good reasons to believe that the ordination is valid even though the ordinand does not possess a bowl and/or robes. The ordination ceremony in this case entails an intrinsic breaking of a rule, that is, pacittiya 1. If this argument and the ones above are accepted, then Ajahn Thanissaro’s further discussion in points 7-10 becomes irrelevant since it hinges on what had been established in his points 5 and 6. In particular, it may well be true that not mentioning the upajjhaya in the ordination procedure makes the ordination invalid, but this is beside the point. The lack of an upajjhaya can arguably be considered a breach of the conditions given in the Parivara, but no such breach exists in the case of ordaining 2 or 3 bhikkhunis at the same time. In contrast to the case where there is no upajjhaya, for which Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument may be valid, an ordination of 2 or 3 bhikkhunis at the same time does not breach any of the stipulations made in the Canonical Vinaya for a valid sanghakamma. His points 8-10, then, do not add anything to what he has already stated in points 5 and 6, which I have already discussed.

A final and important point is that bhikkhu pacittiya 65, which concerns the invalid ordination of someone less than 20 years old, specifically states in the rule itself that the ordination is invalid. No such statement is found in bhikkhuni pacittiyas 82 or 83, and thus it is reasonable to assume that the breaching of these rules cannot in itself invalidate the ordination. Even the commentary (Sp IV 945,4-10) does not say anything about the ordination having failed.

In conclusion, I cannot see that Ajahn Thanissaro has established what he claims to have established, that is, that “a bhikkhuni ordination in which the transaction statements mentioned more than one candidate per statement would not be considered valid, and the candidate would not count as accepted” (Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 10).