Next week we will be hosting in Bangkok a UK/US lady who has ordained as a Bhikkhuni, a female monk, in the Tibetan tradition. You will have 2 chances to come and meet with her, in a formal setting, and in an informal format with our ‘Cappuccino Club’.
Coincidentally this week has seen a couple of news stories relating to the topic of women ordaining as nuns/priests. The first is of a 70 year old lady from Kentucky ordaining in the Catholic tradition. She is not ‘official’ in so far as her ordination is not recognized by the Vatican, but her church is very much Catholic.
This is not a new thing, as Catholic women have been ordained as priests before. But it is a new event for America; and so their news networks consider it a ‘first’!
Buddhism by contrast does not prohibit women from any role in the Sangha, except for one thing – they cannot ordain monks. In the original community under the Buddha women could ordain, albeit they may have been admitted with some reluctance. Women can give precepts, refuges, go on almsround and every other function, including most importantly, teaching dharma and getting enlightened.
There was a particular stipulation however – that female monks, called Bhikkhunis – must be ordained by both the male Sangha and the female Sangha. At that time in Indian however, too few women were ordaining and so the lineage died out. Without other nuns to perform ordinations, it was difficult to restart the process. This sticking point had some loopholes, which have been discussed in detail among the monastic communtiy for many years. In short, if you are for the re-introduction of the ordination of Bhikkhunis, you will focus on the loopholes which admit a renewed lineage. If you are against, then the letter of the law, is, well, Law and there is no further discussion. Basically, where there’s a will there’s a way.
Whatever one’s views on the topic, the fact is that over the last decade quite a number of women have ordained, and have earned respect. The future will include, as the Buddha intended, Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, lay-men and lay-women as the ‘four-fold Sangha’. The arrows of change all point that way and those who see otherwise will eventually die out.
Which brings us to the other story in the headlines – the Dalai Lama, who could well be considered the unofficial head of Buddhism in the world, has said that he would be happy if his successor were a woman. While it sounds great – that the order be lead by the most capable person irrespective of gender – the reality is rather different. The Dalai Lama’s own appointment was far from meritorious. It was based on a centuries old and rather spurious tradition of finding reincarnations. Looking through the history of Dalai Lamas, the results have been as hit and miss as a British hereditary Kingship.
The Theravada Sangha of monks (Theravada means – Way of the Elders, and is an older lineage of Buddhism than Mahayana or Tibetan) has no interest in putting women in charge of its temples. However, but for a few voices, it has no objection to Bhikkhunis living in Thailand and setting up their own temples.
In fact, almost every monk I have spoken to in Thailand has said they are happy for the women to ordain and have their own places. After all, Thailand is a country of religious freedom. The male and female Sangha’s would soon work out their relationship with each other, with the common guidance of the Dharma.
The Thai Bhikkhu Sangha is headed by a Sangharaja (Supreme Patriarch), who is now, unfortunately, very old and no longer with us mentally. Under him are nine Somdeths, senior monks who run the Sangha Council. They are not a law making body – more something like the House of Lords or a Senate, whose job it is to keep a steady hand on the tiller. If pressed, they will not recognise Bhikkhuni ordination in Theravada officially, but they are happy to let the situation evolve at a more natural pace. The monks are happy running themselves, and will not condone a full integration of male and female monks in the established heirarchy, but do allow for the female Sangha to build their own institutions.
There’s a lot more to be said on this topic. For example there was an ordination for Bhikkhunis held in Australia a few years ago, which brought the topic to the fore. My own observation on this event was posted up on this site at the time.
For the meantime, lets just note that there are few remaining restrictions for women ordaining as Bhikkhunis in Buddhism, and none for ordained practitioners of any gender as a Samana (ordained renunciate) or lay person.
For our guest speaker in May, you are welcome to ask questions. She was ordained in Taiwan as a full Bhikkhuni, but she is not an expert in the myriad of technicalities in the Sangha rules. Also, from my own perspective, I am much more interested in her practises in the Nepalese mountains than I am in discussion on gender topics that have been well thrashed out in Buddhist forums more dedicated and scholarly than ours.