Letter From Bhikkhu Bodhi

Nov. 6, 2009

Dear Ven. Sujato,

Over the past few days I have obtained more information about the background to the bhikkhuni ordination in Perth than I had available to me last week, when I wrote my letter of congratulations. This more recent information has given me a fuller and clearer picture of the implications of the ordination. While I did expect that Ajahn Brahm and you would be ostracized by the wider WPP Sangha, at the time I wrote I did not realize that relations between monastic communities and among the individual monks that comprise this tradition were as tight and communally determined as they actually are. In the light of my recent insights into the way this tradition functions, I have been compelled to revise the opinion I expressed in the letter I sent you last week and which I approved being posted on your website. I would appreciate it if you would also post this letter on the same website to round out my assessment of the ordination.

I first want to make it absolutely clear that in principle I fully support bhikkhuni ordination. I regard the women who have taken this ordination, whether from lineages based in the so-called “Mahayana countries” or from the recently emergent Theravada bhikkhunis, as legitimately ordained bhikkhunis, fully entitled to participate in the Sangha acts prescribed for them in the Vinaya. I also believe that a full-scale revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha and its unqualified acceptance by the Bhikkhu Sangha is an imperative for the Theravāda tradition in our time.

At the same time, however, in view of the intimate communal structure of the WPP Sangha and the close bonds between the abbots of the monasteries belonging to this tradition, I have been regretfully forced to the conclusion that Ajahn Brahm and yourself were at fault for proceeding in the hasty and secretive way in which you conducted the ordination. In my opinion, in view of the fact that Ajahn Brahm had been an important and much respected member of this community, he should have discussed the issue openly and fully at a meeting with all its prominent representatives, and patiently attempted to prevail upon them with the art of persuasion. You might object that he (and yourself) have tried doing so for years without success, but I am not sure that there has not been substantial progress in this area. Don’t forget that several of the European abbots and siladharas attended the conference at Hamburg, which in itself marked a significant step forward. Further, and especially, a World Abbots’ Meeting was scheduled to be held at Bodhinyana Monastery in December, with the bhikkhuni issue given a prominent place on the agenda. You would only have had to wait patiently for another six weeks to bring the issue to a head.

I believe that, even if you both had felt that the urgency of bhikkhuni ordination had reached a “tipping point,” the meeting in December would have served as the ideal venue to press for a final decision. Even if you were pessimistic that the meeting would have had fruitful results, it still could have served as a final testing ground. If, at that meeting, the international abbots had approved bhikkhuni ordination, at least for Western Australia, you would have been at liberty to arrange the ordination in harmony with the wider WPP Sangha (at least the international branches) and thus hurt feelings would have been minimized. If, on the other hand, the proposal to conduct bhikkhuni ordination was flatly rejected, Ajahn Brahm could have made a reasonable choice. He could either have decided to withdraw from the WPP network and arrange the ordination as a fully autonomous elder monk; or else, while still belonging to the WPP Sangha, he could have conducted the ordination in defiance of the prevailing decision and risked excommunication. In such an event, at least, the decision to proceed with bhikkhuni ordination would have been made openly and after a final attempt at persuasion had failed. Six more weeks of waiting, and the issue could have been decided by a simple up or down vote. As it is, by conducting the ordination in a secretive way, without giving sufficient heed to the opinions and feelings of others in his tradition, he has caused divisions, belligerence, and pain which, with more circumspection, might have been avoided or at least reduced.

The opinion I express here is in full accord with the qualifications that I made in the full version of my Hamburg presentation, which I will cite as an appendix to this letter. Please be assured that, while I express these reservations about the way Ajahn Brahm proceeded in this affair, I still lend him my moral support just as much as I support the revival of bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravāda tradition.

***

Appendix

The Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination
in the Theravāda Tradition

(From the full text of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper presented at the conference
on bhikkhuni ordination in Hamburg, July 2007)

… One last issue that must be faced, which I can only touch on, concerns the strategy of implementing a revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha. In particular, we must deal with the question: “Should individual Sanghas begin ordaining women as bhikkhunis independently or should they first attempt to gain recognition of bhikkhuni ordination from the higher authorities of the Sangha hierarchy?” This is an extremely delicate question which takes us into the heart of communal monastic life. It is also a partly dated question, since bhikkhuni ordinations have already started. But still, I think it is useful to reflect on this consideration to ensure that the Bhikkhuni Sangha will develop in healthy and harmonious integration with the Bhikkhu Sangha….

In my opinion bhikkhus who belong to an extended community, such as a Nikāya or network of monasteries, should attempt to reach consensus on this issue within their community. It is only when serious, sincere, and prolonged attempts at persuasion prove futile that monks who favor restoring the Bhikkhuni Sangha should consider whether to hold bhikkhuni ordinations without such a consensus.

Although there might not be any such thing as a unified international Theravāda Sangha, it seems to me that each monk has an obligation to act in conscience as if there were such an entity; his decisions and deeds should be guided by the ideal of promoting the well-being and unity of an integral Sangha even if this Sangha is merely posited in thought. On this basis, I would then have to say that when one group of bhikkhus decides to confer bhikkhuni ordination without obtaining the consent of the leadership of the Sangha body to which they belong, or without obtaining a wide consensus among fellow bhikkhus in their fraternity, they risk creating a fissure within the Sangha. While they are certainly not maliciously causing a schism in the Sangha, they are still dividing the Sangha into two factions that hold irreconcilable views on the critically important question of whether persons of a particular type—namely, women who have undergone the upasampadā procedure—actually possess the status of a fully ordained monastic. And this is surely a very serious matter. In short, while in principle I believe there are legal grounds for re-introducing bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravāda tradition and strongly support a revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, I also feel that this should be done in a cautious way that will preserve the tenuous unity of the Sangha rather than divide it into two factions, a dominant faction that remains convinced the Bhikkhuni Sangha cannot be revived, and a smaller faction that acknowledges the existence of a Bhikkhuni Sangha.

But this concern also has to be balanced against concern that an established monastic old guard committed to preserving the status quo will persistently block all proposals to revive a Bhikkhuni Sangha, thus frustrating all attempts at transformation. In such a case, those committed to reviving the Bhikkhuni Sangha may well be entitled to obey the call of their own conscience rather than the orders of their monastic superiors. However, I believe, it would be far preferable for them to try to draw their monastic superiors into the process. This will call for patience and persistence, and will require all their powers of persuasion. But such an approach is more prudent than a rash action that may cause bitter divisions within the Sangha. In Sri Lanka, at least, the attitudes of the senior monks have changed dramatically over the past ten years and many have become amenable to the idea of bhikkhuni ordination. Thus proponents of bhikkhuni ordination should give priority to meeting the leading elders of the Sangha and patiently attempting to win their approval in a way that will, at the same time, enable them to preserve the dignity of their positions.

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