Within many Buddhist communities, both in Asia and in non-Asian countries, the issue of the valid ordination of nuns and the status of nuns within the wider monastic community is at the forefront of discussion and debate. Anyone who has participated in this discussion will have seen how much emotion this issue has generated. It is probably fair to predict that this issue will continue to offer challenging questions for the next few decades and will have a significant impact on the landscape of the Theravāda tradition.
For many people in the West, the apparent inequality determined by gender touches a deep and raw nerve. The hierarchical structure of the Theravāda tradition does not blend in easily with the modern Western principles of egalitarianism and feminism. If women are seen to be denied ‘equal rights’ then for many people this automatically equates with discrimination and injustice. The resulting emotional reaction can be so powerful and visceral that people may lose an ability to be objective.
Because of Ajahn Payutto’s status as a leading scholar and teacher, it is natural that he has participated in this discussion. He has been criticized by some people for being overly conservative and narrow-minded. I have recently begun to read the book titled ‘Answers to Dr. Martin – the Buddhist Vinaya in relation to Bhikkhunis,’ compiled by Dr. Martin Seeger of Leeds University (pub. 2010). Here are some of the initial topics discussed in this text:
Before the Buddha’s final passing away, he said to Ven. Ānanda: ‘If they wish, the order may abolish the minor rules after my passing.’ The five hundred arahants led by the Elder Mahākassapa who gathered shortly after the Buddha’s death for the First Council, however, decided unanimously to not accept this offer and decided instead to keep the discipline (Vinaya) as it was. Ajahn Payutto claims that this decision by the saṅgha effectively ‘sealed’ or ‘determined’ the Theravada tradition. He goes on to describe how there have been frequent challenges to this authority, which resulted in myriad, splintered schools or denominations (nikāya): for example, two hundred and fifty years after the Buddha’s death, during the time of King Asoka, there were already eighteen different schools. Today, by including the Mahāyāna tradition, there are hundreds, including two hundred in Japan alone. Of all these hundreds of Buddhist schools, the Theravāda school is the largest.
The Vinaya includes a procedure for the ordination of bhikkhunīs (fully ordained nuns) and sāmaṇerīs (novice nuns), which requires the presence and approval of existing bhikkhunīs. Here we come to the crux of problem. Sometime between the 6th and 11th century, the Theravāda bhikkhuni order ceased to exist. If one chooses to reestablish the bhikkhuni order then one in effect decides to rewrite the Vinaya in order to validate the procedure. Indeed, this decision has been made by some Theravādan monastic communities, and there have been many women ordained as bhikkhunis over the past thirty years, notably in Sri Lanka.
The matter of nuns’ ordinations is a Catch 22. Those individuals who support and carry out bhikkhuni ordinations feel that this act of empowerment to women who aspire to renunciation and awakening offsets the risk of division and dissension within the wider Theravāda community. Others, like Ajahn Payutto, feel that the risks of division and schism in the Theravāda community endanger the stability and long-lasting existence of this tradition. Once people begin to tamper with the Vinaya, the floodgates open—there is likely to be no end to people raising objections, demanding reform, and splintering off into different factions. From what I gather, Ajahn Payutto is much more in favour of promoting (and perhaps creating) optimal and healthy female renunciant forms of practice (for example the Mae Chi order in Thailand, the sīladhāra order established by Ajahn Sumedho in England, or the dasa-sīla-māta of Sri Lanka). This way the integrity of the Theravāda tradition is preserved and women are provided with the requisites for living the Holy Life, so that they can be beacons of light and wisdom in the world.
In reply to the accusation of being narrow-minded, Ajahn Payutto simply states:
There are two facets to open-mindedness: first is recognition and acknowledgement of the truth, not simply holding to personal preferences. Recognition of the truth is accomplished by being open to what others have to say and being open to different circumstances, which may require a sacrifice of one’s cherished opinions. Second, is a giving up of personal advantage for the benefit and stability of the wider community.