The Recent Controversy Regarding the Full Ordination of Women in Theravadan Buddhism

The first full bhikkhuni ordination of women in the sangha of Thailand's most famous meditation master, Ajahn Chah, took place on October 22, 2009, at the monastery headed by Ajahn Brahmavamso in Perth, Western Australia. Although this news was met with great rejoicing by many Buddhists worldwide, there was considerable backlash. Almost immediately after the ordinations Ajahn Brahmavamso was officially expelled from communion with the Ajahn Chah sangha. This was principally because he refused pressure both to denounce the bhikkhuni ordination as invalid, and to regard the new bhikkhunis as mae chees--practitioners junior to novice monks. (That it was not within his power to denounce the ordination--it was ostensibly carried out by the bhikkhunis present--was not taken into account.)

Around the same time as the Perth ordinations there was a contrasting movement within the monasteries of the same lineage in Britain. In August 2009, Ajahn Sumedho--a peer of Ajahn Brahmavamso and also one of Ajahn Chah's first Western disciples--and a few of his senior monks imposed a "fivepoint agreement"¯ on the nuns' community of Amaravati and Cittaviveka monasteries. Fashioned on the eight garudhammas, these points assert the seniority of monks to nuns, and additionally block the nuns from taking, or seeking to take, full ordination within that lineage.

This "fivepoint agreement"¯ is presented below - both in it's original form (on the left) and with some substitutions (on the right) to highlight just how discriminatory it is:

1. The structural relationship, as indicated by the Vinaya, of the Bhikkhu Sangha to the Siladhara Sangha is one of seniority, such that the most junior bhikkhu is "senior"¯ to the most senior siladhara. As this relationship of seniority is defined by the Vinaya, it is not considered something we can change. 1. The structural relationship, as indicated by the Vinaya, of the White Sangha to the Black Sangha is one of seniority, such that the most junior White is "senior"¯ to the most senior Black. As this relationship of seniority is defined by the Vinaya, it is not considered something we can change.
2. In line with this, leadership in ritual situations where there are both bhikkhus and siladhara--such as giving the anumodana [blessings to the lay community] or precepts, leading the chanting or giving a talk--is presumed to rest with the senior bhikkhu present. He may invite a siladhara to lead; if this becomes a regular invitation it does not imply a new standard of shared leadership. 2. In line with this, leadership in ritual situations where there are both Whites and Blacks--such as giving the anumodana [blessings to the lay community] or precepts, leading the chanting or giving a talk--is presumed to rest with the senior White present. He may invite a Black to lead; if this becomes a regular invitation it does not imply a new standard of shared leadership.
3. The Bhikkhu Sangha will be responsible for the siladhara pabbajja [ordination] the way Luang Por Sumedho [Ajahn Sumedho] was in the past. The siladhara should look to the Bhikkhu Sangha for ordination and guidance rather than exclusively to Luang Por. A candidate for siladhara pabbajja should receive acceptance from the Siladhara Sangha, and should then receive approval by the Bhikkhu Sangha as represented by those bhikkhus who sit on the Elders' Council. 3. The White Sangha will be responsible for the Black pabbajja [ordination] the way Luang Por Sumedho [Ajahn Sumedho] was in the past. The Blacks should look to the White Sangha for ordination and guidance rather than exclusively to Luang Por. A candidate for Black pabbajja should receive acceptance from the Black Sangha, and should then receive approval by the White Sangha as represented by those Whites who sit on the Elders' Council.
4. The formal ritual of giving pavarana [invitation for feedback] by the Siladhara Sangha to the Bhikkhu Sangha should take place at the end of the Vassa as it has in our communities traditionally, in keeping with the structure of the Vinaya. 4. The formal ritual of giving pavarana [invitation for feedback] by the Black Sangha to the White Sangha should take place at the end of the Vassa as it has in our communities traditionally, in keeping with the structure of the Vinaya.
5. The siladhara training is considered to be a vehicle fully suitable for the realization of liberation, and is respected as such within our tradition. It is offered as a complete training as it stands, and not as a step in the evolution towards a different form, such as bhikkhuni ordination. 5. The Black training is considered to be a vehicle fully suitable for the realization of liberation, and is respected as such within our tradition. It is offered as a complete training as it stands, and not as a step in the evolution towards a different form, such as ordination equalivant to White ordination.
Suggested by Jill Shepherd - Similar substitutions can be found here.

Some notes on the Amaravati "fivepoint agreement"¯:

  • "As this relationship of seniority is defined by the Vinaya, it is not considered something we can change."

    Just how authentic is the story of the founding of the Bhikkhuni Order as found in the Vinaya? Please have a look at The Questionable Authenticity of AN 8.51/Cv.X.1 - The Founding of the Order of Nuns for a detailed discussion.

    From MN 76 (which takes place at Kosambi): "here some teacher is a traditionalist, one who regards oral tradition as truth, he teaches a Dhamma by oral tradition, by legends handed down, by what has come down in scriptures. But when a teacher is a tradionalist, one who regards oral tradition as truth, some is well remembered and some is wrongly remembered, some is true and some is otherwise. About this a wise person considers thus: 'This good teacher is a traditionalist ... some is true and some is otherwise.' So when one finds this holy life is without consolation, he turns away from it and leaves it."

    In the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65) the Buddha says "Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture..." and adds "When you know 'These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when undertaken & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering' -- then you should abandon them." The "fivepoint agreement" is a greedy power grab, is hostile to the nuns' community and is certainly delusional with regard to human rights as understood in the 21st century. It has led to to harm & to suffering; therefore, it should be abandoned.

    Some Vinaya rules have already been modified/modernized - e.g. Pacittiya 57. "Should any bhikkhu bathe at intervals of less than half a month, except at the proper occasions, it is to be confessed...."

  • "The siladhara training is considered to be a vehicle fully suitable ..."

    "Separate but Equal" was a long standing tradition in the United States, even approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the reality was "separate and unequal" and a later ruling by the Supreme Court recognized this, struck down the doctrine of "Separate but Equal" and required full integration.

So what should be the response of the lay community in a situation such as this? There is an incident recorded in the Pali texts that give a suggestion:

At Ghosita's monastery at Kosambi a conflict broke out between two factions of monks - over something as trivial as a toilet seat being left up (the actual infraction was leaving a container in the latrine with some water left in it). The two factions blew this all out of proportion and eventually the Buddha was asked to resolve the conflict -- but was unable to do so. One morning after eating his alms food, he simply left without notice and went off on solitary retreat. The lay community in Kosambi thought: "These monks are doing us great harm. They have plagued the Blessed One until he has gone away. Let us no longer honor these monks, let us give them no more alms food." This withdrawal of support led to the monks of Kosambi going to Savatthi, meeting with the Buddha again and resolving the conflict quickly.

It seem the lay community does have power. Those who have said this subjugation of women is an internal monastic affair affair are wrong - there are not any internal monastic affairs! It would seem that the correct response of those in the lay community who feel some group of monastics is behaving badly, is to withhold support from the monastics who are behaving inappropriately.

When the monks from Kosambi came to Savatthi wishing to resolve their conflict, the Savatthi lay community went to the Buddha and asked his advice. He replied "Give gifts to both sides. Approve the views of those who speak according to Dhamma." It would seem that the withdrawal of support is only appropriate as long as there is no willingness to resolve the conflict.


The Questionable Authenticity of AN 8.51/Cv.X.1 - The Founding of the Order of Nuns

For information on the conflict at Kosambi, see The Life of the Buddha, Bhikkhu Ńanamoli, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, pages 109 - 119. This includes material from Vin. Mv. Kb. 10, MN 128 & MN 48.

Ordination of Women by Ajahn Brahmavamso in 1990
History in the Making?
Ajahn Brahm excommunicated for performing Bhikkhuni Ordination in Australia
The Time Has Come
Alliance for Bhikkhunis
Present | The Voices and Activities of Theravada Buddhist Women
Ajahn Sujato's Blog “Buddhism for a small world: views and opinions” - see especially his entry about power in the Western monasteries
Bhikkhu Bodhi’s letters in support of bhikkhuni ordination
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Leigh Brasington / / Revised 09 Mar 14