Bhikkhunis should go rogue

The problem with Bhikkhuni ordinations is that there is a problem, and there shouldn’t be. It is shameful that there is still opposition to the full ordination of women as Buddhist monastics.

A new article to be published in the summer edition of Buddhadharma takes a look at the current situation and discusses 2009’s controversial Bhikkhuni ordination in Perth, as well as the ongoing problem of gender equality in Buddhism.

The article says, “Like a cork popped from a tight bottle . . . [the issue] has inadvertently challenged the core of Thai monastic authority, which refuses to accept the validity of Theravada bhikkhuni.”

One nun asks, “How can I live with integrity if I love being a monastic but find the ancient structure unresponsive to our modern times?”

Women have been trying to work “within the system” and it seems to me that this effort has largely failed. Yes, support is slowly growing within the male monastic community, but overall, it is a stalled issue, punitive actions have been taken against monks who support Bhikkhuni ordination, and women continue to suffer.

Another nun poses this question, “How can I still use a monastic vehicle that is so structurally unfriendly and prejudiced toward women as my path to liberation?”

Well, a monastic vehicle is not a machine, of course, rather a community of people and the fact that this community is unfriendly and prejudiced against women should call into question their religious authority. If you abuse authority, then perhaps you should lose it. I would have to say this apparent clinging to power raises some issues on the monk’s side and those opposed to Bhikkhuni ordinations or trying to put stumbling blocks in the way would benefit from some reflection.

There are some things in Buddhism that are “religulous”, to borrow Bill Maher’s phrase.  There are some rules in the Vinaya, the monastic rules, that have absolutely no relevance to today’s world, and ones that make little sense. For instance, it is okay to have an emission of semen when you are asleep but not when you are awake. If a Bhikkhu is sick, he can only take one meal at a “public rest house.” No “sporting in the water.” Bhikkhunis cannot use steam baths. Bhikkhus can only bathe twice a month, and thank goodness, few of them follow that one. Actually, I think that only applies if you are in the Ganges River Valley.

The Vinaya contains rules that seem to have no other purpose than to keep women in a subservient position. Monks rationalize their superiority, clinging to rules they say represent the words of the Buddha, ignoring  evidence that much of the Vinaya was written after the Buddha’s death.

There is no central religious authority in Buddhism, and each tradition should be able conduct their affairs and their ordinations independently, and I have always been perplexed why in the case of Mahayana ordinations there has ever been a need to seek out a Theravadin stamp of approval.

I respect the Theravada tradition. But no one owns Buddhism. And, I don’t know what to say about Buddhists who believe in the impermanence of all things, and yet are so resistant to change. I have little use for a Buddhism that cannot change. It has transformed itself many times in the past. Much of this past has either been lost or covered up, so that the impression we have today is of this unbroken line and everything is nearly as it was in the Buddha’s time.

But an even more important point is that the sangha is supposed to be a four-fold sangha, not one-fold. It is not logical that the Buddha, who criticized the existing caste system, would turn around and create a new one. Buddhism should not be about who is superior or inferior, or who sits with whom, or who eats first at public events. All the privileges that the monks enjoy should be considered as gifts from the rest of us and a little humility would be in order.

The debt owned to women for keeping Buddhism alive from behind the scenes cannot be measured. There would be no Buddhism without women. To continue to treat them like this is inexcusable.

So I say that if the monks won’t change and give women equality, then the women should go rogue.

They should start their own sangha. As far as I am aware, there is nothing in the Buddha-dharma that prohibits the establishment of new sanghas or traditions. If there were then we would not have the many traditions we have today.

Not only is there an issue of clinging to power here, but clinging to the teachings as well. The teachings, the words of the Buddha, from a Mahayana point of view, are like a raft that ferries people over the sea of suffering to the other shore of Nirvana and when the other shore is reached, there is no longer a need for the raft. The point is not about discarding the teachings, but about not clinging to them in an unhealthy way that brings suffering to others.

What can one do when the raft is too small? The Mahayana answered that question by building another raft. I think the same approach should be applied here.

The rules, procedures, rights and privileges, and the mythologies all belong to past and they have little resonance in this modern age, and I see no reason to continue to drag the past along with us every step of the way. What’s needed are fresh departures and insights, new structures, with acknowledgment and respect for the old traditions certainly, but when an established tradition does not work anymore, maybe it’s time to begin thinking about a new tradition.

I don’t know, perhaps some women are planning to create their own sangha. I hope so. I hope they create a new, more reasonable Vinaya. I would really like to see new sanghas that are truly four-fold sanghas, where all are treated equally, with no discrimination between men and women, or lay and monastic. I feel that is more in line with what we understand of the Buddha’s teachings.

Going rogue is not going rogue at all. It’s laying a foundation for the future.


2 thoughts on “Bhikkhunis should go rogue

  1. The parallels between women and homosexuals being allowed into Christian ministry and this article are intriguing to me. I’ve always thought of religion as outdated and spirituality as the real meat of the whole ordeal. Religions are structured, solidified, after years of tinkering and toying by man. Spirituality is the raw, unbridled connection to the ineffable that is natural within us all. I believe spirituality can be cultivated through religion, and a number of other methods, but that the end goal should be to realize all those little rules were like markers on a single path through a vast forest — that is, no matter which markers you followed, you’d still find the end eventually.

    It is paradoxical that the very ones who are supposed to be the most accepting of universal impermanence are the same ones who are too attached to the present illusion and don’t want it to change. I like that point a lot.

    “Going rogue” is an interesting way to phrase it. But you are right, it is setting up precedent for the future. And all religions started out this way — an off-shoot of previously established traditions and ideologies, morphed to fit the present culture and needs of the people. There’s a building process — an evolution — similar to what happens in the folk music tradition (oh, yes, a loose metaphor that kind of works, and alludes to Dylan at the same time).

    This is an awesome post — it’s like a Manifesto or Call to Arms, though not literal arms, of course. I completely agree with you as well.

    On a somewhat side note — excellent writing style on this article as well. Very impassioned but literate; a restrained emotional plea — or something. Hard to put into words, actually, but I dig the prose itself.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, rt.

      Lama Govinda, in his book A Living Buddhism for the West, wrote: “True religiosity is based on a religious experience that opens up . . . which bears all the marks of spontaneity and whose principle motivating factor is that urge in man to outgrow himself.” This is the same thing that Tagore was referring to when he wrote of humankind’s great Further.

      Unfortunately, when a religion becomes institutionalized it becomes static and loses spontaneity and impedes individual spiritual growth. I’d like to think that could be avoided and that institutional change could be brought about naturally. But, honestly, I don’t feel too confident about it. Usually change has to be forced, after people have had to endure so much suffering that they can do nothing else but revolt.

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