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The Buddhist Channel: Why the imposed "silence" on the Wat Pah Pong / Bhikkuni Ordination issue

by Lim Kooi Fong, Editorial, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 8, 2009

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- On November 6, 2009, the Buddhist Channel imposed an editorial decision which contravened its mission statement, which is "Free Inquiry, Right Speech, One Dharma".

On that day, we made a decision to "cease the publication of  any further news or updates with regards to the Wat Pa Pong / Western Buddhist Sangha situation."

The reason we gave was that "since the situation from both sides have already been made known, and views from many others already explicitly expressed, we feel that more than enough have been said. Talking more about it will never produce a resolution, but may even create new unnecessary situations. Since a probable solution is no longer in sight, we feel it would be best for everyone concerned to emulate the Buddha's example to impose "Noble Silence"."

As expected, we received quite a bit of flak for our decision. Nonetheless, given the latest turn of events, we sincerely believed the decision that we took was a correct one. Please let us explain.

The expulsion of Ajahn Brahmavamso (Ajahn Brahm) from the Sangha of Wat Pah Pong involved two basic incidents: the expulsion itself and the issue of bhikkhuni ordination.

With regards the expulsion of Ajahn Brahm from the Sangha of Wat Pah Pong, the act was not performed as a Sangha kamma (ecclesiastical acts, relating to disciplinary actions or disputes), but an ex-Vinaya action. Ajahn Brahm's monastery, Bodhinyana was simply removed from the register of recognised branches of Wat Pah Pong. With that, Ajahn Brahm was therefore no longer recognised as a member of their community. In lay terms, what simply happened was that a senior monk was told that he is no more a member of his old buddies club. Though unprecedented in the Sangha of Wat Pah Pong, it was just a storm in a tea-cup.

The decison to expel Ajahn Brahm from from the Sangha of Wat Pah Pong was predicated upon Ajahn Brahm's decision to ordinate four bhikkunis in Perth on September 22, 2009. The disagreement to the ordination by the Wat Pah Pong Sangha and the reasons behind their decision have already been documented. (http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=70,8661,0,0,1,0)

Rightly or wrongly, in view of the intimate communal structure of the Wat Pah Pong Sangha and the close bonds between the abbots of the monasteries belonging to this tradition, it is not for us (lay people) to say how their affairs should be managed.

This leads us to the second issue, which was the bhikunni's ordination. When the matter was seen as "interwined with Ajahn Brahm's expulsion", the "storm in a tea-cup" essentially turned into a full blown public "hurricane".

A survey of the views published in blogs and forums between November 3 to 5, 2009 revealed strong emotions and partisan backing (list of the blogs and forums are listed below this editorial for reference). This was not a matter, or something that one can take a neutral stand. It was either yes or no, an "either you are with us or against us" kind of situation.

And because the situation was still in a flux, views published in blogs and forums were speculative at best. Some of the discussion were carried out dissecting information based on hearsays, half truths and some, non existing imaginary tracts. Senior Ajahns were disparaged and the Wat Pah Pong Sangha was painted as though they were a bunch of retrogressive, conservative old monks, bound to death by archaic traditions.

Many of the discussions involved lay people. This was aptly demonstrated in Bhikku Bodhi's letters to Ajahn Sujato, who first wrote a letter of full support for the bhikkuni's ordination on November 3, only to have it retracted three days later. And if this had happened to a learned Buddhist scholar like Bhikkhu Bodhi, what does it say about the lay followers?

But the brutal fact of news publication in public media platforms is that they inadvertantly lead to formation of perceptions based on available information at that time (and of course, the slant taken by the media owner or moderator). When certain perceptions are played over and over again, the momentum generated can easily build up "mob psychology". Once a critical mass like this is generated, the perception of certain views become beholdened to the majority.

And when the person involved in the "storm in a tea cup" concerned happens to be a favourite tea cup of many people (especially in East Asia), then the perfect storm is created: one that is potentially partisan, divisive, enstranged and hostile.

Already just a day after November 3 when the news first broke, a lady participant who registered for a camp in Malaysia led by a very senior Ajahn pulled out after hearing that he was a party who voted for Ajahn Brahm's expulsion. Not only that, she wrote an open letter exhorting other participants to do likewise in support of the bhikunni ordination.

And in blogs, there were talks of "schism" within the Sangha, the death of Theravada Buddhism, the rise of Australian Theravada and that Ajahn Brahm has become the new "Mahayanist", none of which were remotely associated with the expulsion.

History has proven that Buddhist schisms were not created by people involved in the initial disagreement. They merely provided the chip in the armour. But these people are not just two or three mere mortals, but those who commanded a great number of followers. The first ever major rift within Buddhism, as happened in the Second Council 130 years after the Buddha's Parinirvana is an apt reminder of this fact (see here: http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/early-schisms.html). It is the followers that pull the armour apart.

And given the above situation, what could we have done? What action would deem as the wisest and most appropriate?

In the midst of information flux and rising temperatures, we decided that for once if indeed "silence" could used as a communication tool. If we had kept to the first two parts of our mission statement, that is "Free Inquiry and Right Speech", then it would have been probably an "anything goes" situation. But we had a third factor, which is "One Dharma". Free Inquiry and Right Speech stands for nothing if it leads to deconstruction and denigration.

And so we took a pause.

We paused because intimately we knew that we were dealing with a group of one of the most sincere, mindful people on this planet. These were not just simple monks, but highly developed "Ajahns" - Thai for teachers - who lives on one meal a day, speaks when only necessary and whose robes are worn exactly like that of the Buddha 2550 years ago. They were not politicians, and does not have an inkling on how to handle propaganda. They do not own huge monasteries, do not carry money and lives by the forest, away from civilization if possible.

True to form, once the Sangha made the decision to expel Ajahn Brahm, they issued just one official statement, and an extended appendix explaining their reasons. To date they are no further communications from the Wat Pa Pong Sangha, except for a personal letter by Ajahn Chandako to the Western Australian Buddhist Order (http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=8,8666,0,0,1,0) and Ajahn Bramali's response (http://sujato.wordpress.com/2009/11/07/from-ajahn-brahmali-the-bodhinyana-sangha/) to his letter. Then on November 7, Ajahn Brahm officially posted his open letter, explaining his situation of the event (http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=70,8667,0,0,1,0).

But we knew that as mindful practitioners, they are also well aware of the implication of their actions. On the day the Buddhist Channel issued its self imposed silence, we received news that Ajahn Brahm contacted Ajahn Chandako about his letter. Some changes were made to the content but the point was that the ajahns were talking.

Given the developing scenario, we realised that the matter has already been resolved among the Sangha members. The Sangha of Wat Pah Pong has made its stand, and given its tradition and structure, it is only right to respect the position taken by them.

As for Ajahn Brahm's Bodhiyanna, the decision of the bhikkuni's ordination stays, and the expulsion from Wat Pah Pong may actually spur the rise of the Bhikkuni Sangha. As he is no longer encumbered by traditions imposed by Wat Pah Pong, he could now be the catalyst to forge the establishment of this much neglected fourth fold of the holy assembly while maintaining the highest required standards and discipline. As a senior monk, well experienced in Dharma practice and versed in the Vinaya, we have no doubt that this will happen.

We would like to believe that by our act of "silence", we inadvertantly missed the publications of many views from our readers who may not have the privilege of certain key information when they wrote in then. We hope that by doing so, we avoided the creation of unnecessary situations and played a part in the healing process between all parties involved. We implore our readers to view the matter objectively, given the information published above.

The Sangha of Wat Pah Pong has played an immense role of preserving the Buddha's teachings in its pristine and original form admirably for more than a century. They have demonstrated that mindful living, and that of breathing the Buddha's life as it originally was, can be emulated in this time and day. It is not a feat to be looked down upon, although their stance on bhikkuni ordination may not rhyme in this time and age. If you ever get a chance to meet these mindful beings, please remember to bow to them.

As for Bodhiyanna Monastery, a new chapter beckons in the Theravada tradition. May it lead the way for the true inclusion of the Bhikunni Sangha into mainstream Buddhism. May it demonstrate that in this time and day, and indeed in the generations to come, women in the holy order can and will be an indispensible cog in the four fold assembly, preserving and disseminating the Buddha Dharma to all beings, seen or unseen, large or small, far or near, those born and yet to be born. Sadhu!

List of news outlets discussing the Wat Pah Pong / Ajahn Brahm situation:

Forest Sangha
http://www.forestsangha.org/

Sujato's Blog
http://sujato.wordpress.com



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