Thai Bhikkhunis: Shareholders of Faith

Most scholars believe the Theravada Bhikkhuni (female monastics) lineage died out between the 11th and 13th centuries. In recent years there have been attempts to reestablish the Bhikkhuni Sangha but this movement has encountered obstacles and created controversy. The main problem seems to be that many high-ranking males in the tradition maintain that according to the Vinaya (sangha rules) women must be ordained by both the Bhikkhuni Sangha and the Bhikkhu Sangha. Since there is no existing  Bhikkhuni Sangha in Theravada, some of these guys say there can be no ordination for women. It is a classic Catch-22 situation and quite absurd.

Sri Lanka and Thailand are countries where Theravada is the dominant Buddhist tradition. In the former, the ordination of women is permitted, in the latter it is not. According to an Associated Press report “Thailand’s top Buddhist authority bars women from becoming monks. They can only become white-cloaked nuns, who are routinely treated as domestic servants. Many here believe women are inferior beings who had better perform plenty of good deeds to ensure they will be reborn as men in their future lives.”

It should be mentioned that the male sangha in Thailand is thoroughly corrupt and scandal-ridden. In addition to financial fraud at temples, there have been reports of embezzlement, extravagant lifestyles, murder, wildlife trafficking; not long ago a monk was found with 120,000 methamphetamine pills in his possession, another was kicked out of his temple for investing over a million dollars in the stock market, and there has been so much alleged sexual abuse that these Thai monks seem to make the Roman Catholic clergy look like a bunch of Boy Scouts.

In Thailand, the ordination of women is actually illegal and violators can face fines or imprisonment. Despite this, last November Sri Lankan clergy ordained eight Thai women, which led the Thai Sangha council to petition the government to ban Sri Lankan monks and nuns from entering the country.

One of the leaders of the Thai Bhikkhuni movement is Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a woman who is better known by her Buddhist name Dhammananda.

Dhammananda-2Dhammananda was the first bhikkhuni ordained in modern Thailand but she is not the first modern Thai bhikkhuni. That honor belongs to her mother, Voramai Kabilsingh who was ordained in Taiwan in 1971 and who returned to her country to establish the Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Dhammananda is now the Abbess at the monastery, the only bhikkhuni temple in Thailand.

Dhammananda is also a University Professor in Philosophy and Buddhism, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, a published author, and a former TV host. The Thai bhikkhunis have a website (here) where Dhammananda is described as a “a rebel and a trailblazer.”

According to legend, after some initial reluctance the historical Buddha agreed to the creation of the bhikkhuni sangha. Dhammananda says the sangha during the Buddha’s time was a four-legged stool of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen but “we are now sitting on just three legs.”

The AP notes that some of those who opposed the bhikkhuni movement in Thailand see them as “ Western-educated feminists out to undermine traditional Buddhism.” Obviously, they have a warped view as to what constitutes traditional Buddhism.

Historically, there has been much misogyny in Buddha-dharma. We especially find rather ugly remarks about women in the literature. But, there are also stories of remarkable, inspiring women. An excellent example is the tale in the Dhammapada about Dhammadinna, which I will share with you in a highly condensed version:

In Rajagaha, there was a lay-disciple Buddha named Visakha, who after listening to the Buddha’s dharma talks, attained Anagami (“non-returning”, a partially enlightened stage). He said to his wife, “You can have all my property. From today on, I give up the householder’s life.”

Dhammadinna, his wife, replied, “If that be so, I will not accept what you, with such disgust, even as it were but spittle and vomit, have cast aside. Give me leave, too, to forsake the life of a householder.”

She then left to become a bhikkhuni and went to a monastery in a small village to practice meditation with other bhikkhuni. Within a short time, she surpassed her husband’s attainment and returned to Rajagaha.

When Visakha learned that Dhammadinna had come back, he went to see her and threw a barrage of questions her way, all about the paths leading to the realization of nirvana.

When her husband finished, Dhammadinna answered by saying, “Yisakha, you will not be able to understand the answers to questions on things beyond your limit, even such as nirvana, the discipline wayfarers must maintain, and the paths to nirvana. However, if you wish, you may go to the Buddha and ask him these questions.

And that is what Visakha did, and after the Buddha heard all the questions, he said, “Dhammadinna is wise, Visakha. I cannot add anything to what she has already told you.”

The Buddha’s comment confirms that Dhammandinna had realized a high degree of wisdom and could be interpreted as suggesting that women can also become Buddhas.

On the Thai Bhikkhuni website, Dhammananda says,

I am not interested in equality as such, being a Bhikkhuni is not about equality it is about what’s right, it’s about what Buddha believed, his original vision for the faith. We are shareholders of the faith just as a Bhikkhu (male monk), a lay man and a lay woman. We all have a share and we are 25% of that. We should be four brothers and sisters working together”.


What the Mind Carries

On September 10, 1950, exactly 65 years ago today, Beat nomad Neal Cassady composed a letter to future Beat chronicler Jack Kerouac. He wrote from the engine of a train and shared with his friend his thoughts about becoming more absorbed by the landscape and the people he saw, noting:

neal-jack-01cNow, eyeball kicks are among the world’s greatest, second to none actually in terms of abstract thought, because it is thru the way you handle these kicks that is what determines your particular conclusion (in abstraction in the mind) to each moments outlook . . .

One’s mind carries at all times the pressure of its own existence, and remembers previous eyeball views to recall what its previous life has been & feeding on this stuff, carries a heavy understanding of things it is capable of knowing & this knowing is blocked from coming out, because while one’s mind carries one’s life’s past constantly, it also carries before it all day the world which comes in thru the eyeball.” *

It was Cassady who, in a roundabout way, was responsible for stimulating Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism, but in 1950 I don’t think either of them knew much about it, and anyway Cassady never got into it like Kerouac did. Nevertheless, Cassady’s thinking in this passage seems to me rather dharmic.

Vision (“eyeball kicks”) is not free from conceptual or abstract thinking and how we think about what we see dictates to a large degree our view in each moment. This is true for the practice of mindfulness as well, because when we meditate we are not completely liberated from our senses.  Not to mention that meditation is “seeing” with the inner eyeball.

Additionally, we are not separated from the past or future while we are in the “present moment.” When discussing Buddhist meditation, particularly mindfulness, we are fond of saying that the aim is to let go of the past and have no anticipation for the future. Certainly, we wish to release our attachment to the past and not obsess about things to come, but actually the past is always present, and in each moment and with each thought we shape the future.

In meditation, we center ourselves in the present by focusing attention upon some object, often our breath. Nyanaponika Thera, in his book The Heart of Buddhism Meditation, wrote

If there is any further interest in the object, or if its impact on the senses is sufficiently strong, closer attention will be directed towards details . . . This will enable the mind to compare the present perception with similar ones recollected from this past . . . This stage marks a very important step in mental development . . . It also shows us the close and constant connection between the functions of memory and attention (or mindfulness), and will thereby explain why in Pali, the language of the [early] Buddhist scriptures, both these mental functions are expressed by the one word sati.”

[Sati is a Pali word we translate as “mindfulness.”]

We can take this further to say that meditation involves not only the recollection of past perceptions but also past experiences. I think at times some folks are so focused on “letting go,” another phrase we are very fond of, that it becomes escapism.  Perhaps we need to let go of this idea of letting go. Without the past there is no present, so we have to deal with it to develop ourselves. And rather than letting go of sufferings we should embrace them, for without suffering we could never know happiness.

I was making up all kinds of sayings as I went along. I was started on my new life with my new equipment: a regular Don Quixote of tenderness. In the morning I felt exhilarated and meditated first thing and made up a little prayer: ‘I bless you, all living things, I bless you in the endless past, I bless you in the endless present, I bless you in the endless future, amen.’”

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

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* Neal Cassady, The First Third, City Lights Books, 1971, 196

Graphic based on the 1952 photo taken by Carolyn Cassady


Knowing yourself

There is a well-known verse in the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu that goes: “Knowing others is wisdom; Knowing the self is enlightenment.”

It reminds me of the Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself,” once used by Socrates to explain why he was not interested in mythology but thought it more important to know oneself instead.

Naturally, the self I am writing about today is different from the “self” that Buddhism regards as a fiction.

We may understand that existence has no inherent meaning but this does not mean we should be content with a mass of meaningless experiences throughout life. With self-knowledge, we can at least interpret our experiences in order to better shape our present life and future.  Knowing oneself is also knowing what sort of principles we want to live by and understanding our relationship with other living beings. It is how we grow to have a fuller experience of life.

This is the true purpose of mindfulness. Becoming calmer, less stressful, and so on, are really just benefits we gain through the process of self-discovery.

ming-2b2Back in August I wrote about “not knowing.” I mentioned that Lao Tzu called not knowing “illumination” (Ch. ming). This same character, ming, is found in the verse from the Tao Te Ching I quoted above, taken from the still popular version by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English published in 1972. The character is a picture of the moon and a window. Moonlight shining through a window symbolizes brightness or illumination.

Arthur Waley, in his 1934 version, translated the verse like this:

To understand others is to have knowledge;
To understand oneself is to be illumined.
To conquer others needs strength;
To conquer oneself is harder still.


Tashi and the Monk

I watched a wonderful short documentary the other night on HBO, Tashi and the Monk.

tashi-monkThe monk is actually an ex-monk, Lobsang Phuntsok, who runs a school for orphans and abandoned children. Tashi is a 5-year-old girl whose mother died and father is an alcoholic. She is the youngest and newest member of the community. She has behavioral problems and reminds Phuntsok of his own childhood. He was born to an unwed mother and was often “very naughty.” Sent to a monastery, he continued to misbehave but eventually he changed. He’s hoping to see that same change in Tashi.

The Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community is located in the district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India, a place so remote it takes three days to get there from the nearest airport. The children come from nearby villages.

Lobsang Phuntsok studied with the Dalai Lama and taught Buddhism in Boston, before giving up his ordination in order to return to the Indian Himalayas to help unfortunate children. His work with the children is based on the principle that we should take good care of each other. Lobsang encourages an older boy to guide Tashi: “You must help her understand . . . what is right and wrong . . . this is your job as a responsible elder brother, OK?””

Jhamtse Gatsal is Tibetan for “garden of love and compassion.” The school is home to about 85 children. It is understaffed and overburdened.  Because of this, Phuntsok cannot take in as many children as he would like. However, he is like a father to all the children he has accepted and they call him “daddy.”

At one point during the film, the children, many of whom are motherless, sing a song:

In this great big world,
There is so much love and care,
But there is no kindness greater
Than my mother’s love.

From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, no one is motherless. Recognizing that in the past all sentient beings have been one’s mother is part of the process of generating bodhicitta, the “thought of awakening”, along with remembering their kindness, and repaying that kindness with love, boundless compassion, and altruistic intention.

Nagarjuna said, “If we divided this earth into pieces the size of juniper berries, the number of these would not be as great as the number of times that each sentient being has been our mother.”

Directed by Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke, Tashi and the Monk is only 45 minutes long. If you watch it, that will be three quarters of an hour well spent.  It is showing this month on HBO and may be available from other services and on other platforms.