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.

Just Another Monk’s Story

Bhante Yuttadhammo’s case is over. Charges dismissed. (Congrats!) He writes:

At this point, I have to express my appreciation for the people who have supported me over the past five, six months. There’ve been a lot of people upset or at least unsupportive of my choices in life, but in the end, when the chips are down, it’s amazing how people can just come together and pitch in to help a guy out of a jam… even a monk-guy. Thanks everybody, you know who you are.

You can read his entire account on his blog. If you want an American Buddhist story, then look no further!

What Western Buddhism Shouldn’t Be

Bhante Yuttadhammo posts a wonderful quote by President Barack Obama on his blog.

“We all have many identities – of tribe and ethnicity; of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st Century.”

Again, my main gripe is when self-styled Western Buddhism is defined in explicit contrast to other forms of Buddhism. More often than not, this definition entails a gross negative stereotype over the hundreds of millions of Buddhists who don’t consider themselves Western Buddhists, my grandma included. Perhaps a Western Buddhist is just someone who’s preoccupied with what it means to be a Western Buddhist.

When a Western Monk Has Had Enough

Both here and on Dharma Folk, I’ve repeatedly railed against the marginalization and misrepresentation of Asian (American) Buddhists by self-styled “Western” Buddhists. For instances of Asians acting likewise towards non-Asian Buddhists, I hadn’t read a truly compelling story (sorry Al) until I read Bhante Noah Yuttadhammo’s post today. He describes a very similar loneliness and powerlessness.

Next on the list is the feeling of being much akin to a tropical bird in a gilded cage; all for show, living a life of interminable slavery to a group of well-meaning admirers. The abbot of Wat Thai summed this one up on the last day of the grueling three-month meditation course when, during the final ceremony and in front of a large crowd of people, he congratulated me by saying, “Phra Noah is a monk worthy of compliment. He is not even Thai, he is a foreign monk, and yet he was able to study and practice to the point that he can even speak Thai.” (Polly wanna rice cracker?) I have met nothing but resistance to any thought that I might ever be given a position of authority; the one time I was made head of a failing meditation center in Thailand, it almost cost me several bruises from a broomstick because, as was kindly pointed out to me, “this isn’t your home. Your father wasn’t born here. Why don’t you go back to your father’s home?” That piece of advice turned out to be terribly useful (the broomstick didn’t add much to his credibility, however), and that is what I came to seek out this time around in North America; a place where I can stand on my two feet and walk the Buddha’s path unhindered by monks who think “Thai way or the Highway.”

I certainly feel for Bhante Yuttadhammo (and sort of wonder what he has to say about Wat Metta and Abhayagiri monasteries). The takeaway message here shouldn’t be that each side is just as bad as the other. Rather, I’d like to think that we’re different groups of Buddhists who have yet to accept and respect that we’re all part of a common community. It’s a hard sell.

In the meantime, I hope he’ll find a good place to stay for the Rains Retreat.