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forest sangha newsletter

October        2007               2550                 Number  81
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

Women's role in the Sangha

Sister Cintamani reports on the recent Hamburg Congress
on bhikshuni ordination



Listening to presentations. 3rd row from left to right:
Aj. Anandabodhi, Sr Cintamani, Aj. Thaniya, Thanissara, Aj Kovida,
Elaine and Richard Allen. In front: Aj. Candasiri, Aj. Sucitto, Aj. Khemasiri , Aj. Vajiro

From July 18–21 the first International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages was held in Hamburg, Germany. The congress was initiated by HH the Dalai Lama, and attracted a gathering of senior Sangha members from all Buddhist traditions, and eminent scholars of Buddhist monastic discipline and history.

Twenty years ago the Dalai Lama had initiated an examination of how to introduce bhikshuni ordination into Tibetan Buddhism. More recently he has been pressing to bring this to a conclusion: ‘The Buddha taught a path to enlightenment and liberation from suffering for all sentient beings and people of all walks of life, to women as well as men, without discrimination as to class, race, nationality or social background … While the bhikshu ordination lineage still exists in almost all Buddhist countries today, the bhikshuni ordination lineage exists only in some countries. For this reason, the fourfold Buddhist community (of bhikshus, bhikshunis, upasakas, and upasikas) is incomplete.’

As the Dalai Lama – and many of the congress presenters – pointed out, gender discrimination conflicts with the ethic of social and spiritual equality maintained in core Buddhist teachings. Therefore the issue of full ordination for women has become a concern in the contemporary international Buddhist community. Congress organizer Ven. Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen introduced the discussion saying: ‘From a Western point of view the main question is not: can we or should we have bhikkhunis in all three traditions? That question has already been answered by the Buddha himself, who gave full support for the women’s Sangha. The question is: how can we develop the Bhikkhuni Sangha in the best possible way? … to follow this path requires not only a lot of inner strength, but should also be accompanied with the support of the respective society and should meet with the cooperation and support of the Bhikkhu Sangha.’

When our own Elders’ Council convened earlier this year the Elders agreed it was important to have representation at the congress, it being an international gathering of Buddhist Elders addressing a topic of global significance for Buddhism. It is generally understood that religious and cultural traditions influence women's social status, and that women need female role models. Given the restricted roles of women in Buddhist religious structures, and of nuns within that, the Siladhara is one of the longest-standing communities of Buddhist nuns in the Western world. Not to attend would have signalled our disinterest in the global Buddhist community. So it was a party of eleven, mostly senior nuns and monks, who attended from the Cittaviveka, Amaravati and Dhammapala communities. Although we did not make any formal presentations at the congress, we were there to listen, to be a visible presence, and to be available for contact and discussion with those present. The Theravadan tradition was well represented with papers presented by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ven. Ayya Tathaaloka, Ven. Bhikkhu Sujato, Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusuma, Ven. Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, and others.

Across the first two days of the congress a staggering 65 papers were read out, with little time to adequately discuss the issues raised. The themes and content of the papers were roughly divided into: lineage focused and sectarian approaches, text-based and historical approaches, and more contemporary socially conscious approaches. Though speakers were invited to address a range of perspectives, the bigger picture was often lost to legal technicalities. It often felt as though the audience present was not being addressed; rather, papers were appealing to the absent Tibetan Vinaya scholars (Geshes), men opposed to bhikshuni ordination on the basis of Vinaya. Consequently there was a mounting intensity that generated a collective urge to reach a clear resolution. It seemed that these Vinaya arguments against bhikshuni ordination needed to be addressed before the more vexed question of historical Buddhism’s ambivalence to women – the subtext of the congress – could be acknowledged.

Many papers questioned conventional reading of the Vinaya texts; particularly those aspects related to women, such as the garudhammas, ordination, origins of the Bhikkhuni Sangha. Scholars presented evidence of a later brahmanical bias through the texts, thus questioning literalist approaches. Several papers concerned with lineage traced the movement of bhikkhuni ordination from India, at the time of the Buddha, to Sri Lanka and onwards to China. There was a general consensus that the bhikkhuni lineage remains unbroken, in much the same manner as the bhikkhu lineages can be posited as unbroken, given scant textual evidence either way. It became evident that the three main schools of Buddhism share a common root and are not different lineage traditions.

Along with those of a few other Sangha members and scholars, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper straddled all these (lineage, text, historical, social) approaches, and he became instrumental in formulating the preferred model for introducing bhikshuni ordination into the Tibetan tradition that was presented to the Dalai Lama on the last day.*

On the third day of the congress a panel of nine bhikshunis and nine bhikkhus gathered around the Dalai Lama to present to him their suggested model for introducing the bhikshuni ordination into the Tibetan tradition. The panel offered resounding support for bhikshuni ordination, and urged immediate action for providing Tibetan women the same opportunities as are available to Tibetan men. Bhikkhu Bodhi affirmed that, after exhaustive research – ‘no stone had been left unturned’ – the Vinaya cannot be held to present any genuine obstacle to introducing the bhikshuni ordination and that the remaining obstacle is social and political in nature.

Having heard the presentations the Dalai Lama read from his prepared response that offered in principle support, suggested some interim measures, but called for more research. To many present this felt like more irresolution, rather than the much anticipated resolution. He emphasized that he was not able to act unilaterally, without Sangha consent. Yet expectations of a result had been raised by the framing of the congress as a forum for deciding the best model for bhikshuni ordination. In retrospect though, the Dalai Lama’s response was a way of keeping open the dialogue and, with the backing of international support galvanized at the congress, to include the more ‘narrow-minded Geshes’ (as he described them) into this process. To that end he later invited the Tibetan bhikshunis to a conference with the Geshes in India in December of this year.

In the context of the congress, aimed at introducing bhikshuni ordination, the siladhara and maechees present seemed to occupy an anomalous position within the ‘fourfold Buddhist community’. Within a legal framework we had no standing; but within a community framework we were acknowledged for our experience of living and working in a mixed community of nuns and monks. Our personal aspirations were respected and our presence, amid the gathering of global Buddhists, welcomed. The questions raised by the congruence of Buddhist ethics with contemporary standards of gender equity seem of more relevance to our communities than do the technicalities of lineage. Nevertheless, if this gathering of Buddhist Elders and eminent Buddhist scholars is any indication, there is a global movement toward re-establishing the historical ‘fourfold assembly’. This momentum may require us to stay in touch with developments in the global Buddhist community.

*See for details regarding the proposed models. Copies of the conference proceedings are held in the Amaravati library and the nuns’ library at Cittaviveka.




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