Bhikku Bodhi's letters on the nun ordination in Perth

The Buddhist Channel, Nov 11, 2009

With respect to suggestions received from our readers, we hereby re-publish the 2 letters send by Bhikkhu Bodhi to Ajahn Sujato with regards to the Ordination of Nuns in Perth, Australia on September 2009. As a guide, the first letter dated Nov 3 was a letter of support, but three days later on Nov 6, Bhikkhu Bodhi issued a retraction. The two letters were first published on:

New Jersey, USA - 3 Nov 2009
Dear Ven. Sujato,

Thank you for informing me of this event, a report of which I had already stumbled upon quite by accident on the internet last week, just before I left the monastery to visit my father. Please convey my congratulations to Ajahn Brahm for his courageous decision, and also accept for yourself my appreciation for spearheading this development. Also, if you can do so, please convey my congratulations to the new bhikkhunis, especially Ajahn Vayama, an old Dhamma friend from my Sri Lankan days.

Perhaps Ajahn Brahm will henceforth be treated as something of a pariah by the monks of the Wat Poh Pong community. This, however, should not discourage him, or you, from continuing along the path you have blazed by making this momentous decision. We all know that you are in the vanguard. I find it sad that the senior monks from the Western WPP monasteries have not stepped forward to defend you, especially when several of them attended the Hamburg Conference and seemed to support our position. Perhaps they are afraid of creating internal dissension and being ostracized by the "Mother House" in Thailand.

Though the conservatives in the Sangha will balk and attempt to create obstructions, the movement towards the full emergence of a Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha is now, I believe, inevitable in all the countries with major Theravadin constituencies. I remember in the early 1980s, and even the 1990s, how we were all convinced the rejuvenation of a Bhikkhuni Sangha was a legal impossibility. Yet, as Bob Dylan used to sing, "the times they are a-changin." Sri Lanka already has a strong Bhikkhuni Sangha, which, however, has not yet been officially acknowledged by the Government or the chief authorities in the Bhikkhu Sangha. The buds of a Bhikkhuni Sangha have been quietly germinating in Thailand, right beneath the noses of the Chao Khuns and Phra Khrus, though they try not to--or pretend not to--notice it. It is likely that women in the other SE Asian countries will soon be taking full ordination; perhaps some have already done so. Indian and Nepali Buddhist women have become bhikkhunis, and in the U.S. a few Burmese women have taken this step, considered strictly illegal within Myanmar itself, where it is even punishable by imprisonment.

If the leaders of the Asian Buddhist monastic communities won't give the green light to bhikkhuni ordination, they will find themselves falling behind the times, congenial companions of the Vatican prelates who refuse to allow women to become priests. Hopefully, however, the next generations of Asian Theravadin monastics, having gained the benefit of a university education and thereby access to contemporary modes of thought, will strike out in the new direction started by such monks as Ajahn Brahm and yourself (as well as by the progressive theras in Sri Lanka). When that development takes place, Ajahn Brahm and yourself will be regarded as pioneers. So, though at present you might feel lonely, isolated, and even persecuted, bear in mind that virtually all those in every field--from philosophy and religion to the arts, politics and economics--who defy the dead weight of oppressive traditions share a similar destiny.

Though I am not in a position to confer ordinations, if I were I would have no hesitation to give the bhikkhuni ordination to properly qualified women. In my situation, I feel glad that each year I am able to arrange funding to provide a scholarship to a Thai bhikkhuni to attend university (a different one each year). I believe that, in Asia, university education will win for bhikkhunis respect among the laity and forward-thinking bhikkhus, and this will give greater weight to their aspirations for full recognition by their elder male peers.

With metta and all Dhamma blessings,
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

P.S. I am copying Ajahn Brahmali on this with the hope that he will pass it on to Ajahn Brahm, who (I believe) doesn't use computers: not a progressive in that respect.


November 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 Theravada 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 Theravada tradition.

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