“I’m struggling with something I would like help with, without judgment if possible. I’ve attended different Buddhist centers over the past 25 years. All with amazing beautiful people and teachers and teachings. However, I consider myself a feminist and struggle with all the centers only having male teachers and monks, despite their wonderful teachings. I’m my career coach and help women rise to leadership positions and equal the playing field and can’t get past that there are no women leading the Dharma or spiritual teachings or even co-heading the spiritual centers. There are amazing nuns like Pema Chodron, but I’ve never encountered them. I know all religions have men at the top and it just holds me back and while I tell myself to just listen to the teachings/messages, my heart tells me that ignoring the imbalance/inequality, I’m participating in it being perpetuated. Why must a monk or leader only be a man? Why do most of the teachings center males? Im not trying to offend, I just want to understand how and if I can record come so I could attend Dharma. ”
This was an OP in a thread in a Thich Nhat Hanh facebook group. Of the places to send this a Thay group is perhaps the least appropriate, recently much has come out of the communities he established (Plum Villages) from women. In the thread the Plum Villages were positively seen as enabling women - Thay - female Buddhas, Sister Chan Duc, Anh-Huong Nguyen, Singapore Joyful Garden Sangha.
I want to comment on the tradition I most closely follow – the Theravadan tradition. This tradition is significant for the West because of the Forest Sangha tradition that was established by Ajaan Chah; the Forest Sangha were created by Ajaan Chah with the specific purpose of bringing Theravada Buddhism to the West. Now I live in Thailand but am only cursorily connected to Thai Buddhist institutions. I converted to Buddhism in Thailand when I visited Wat Phra Keau as a tourist, sat there for a while and knew I was a Buddhist. Because it was in Thailand I focussed my ensuing Buddhist studies on Theravada teachings, and when I was still in the UK (about 20 years ago) – or on vacation in the UK – I often attended Harnham monastery on retreat. I will always be grateful for all that I learned at Harnham. It helps development to focus on one tradition – there is sufficient proliferation in one tradition without having to cope with different traditions; I am not advocating one tradition over another although Theravada worked for me.
But Harnham’s gender profile was typically described in the above OP – see the current gender profile here. At the time I visited I think I am correct in saying that women could not attend retreats although there were many lay women followers. In the Manchester area I attended a lay group of the monastery that was organised by women. I believe that the monastery has now built quarters so that women can attend on retreat – fitting in with the practices of the Forest Sangha tradition. When you stand back and look at this situation from a western point of view this institutional approach is extremely patriarchal – very out-of-date for a tradition geared to the West.
I do not know what the views of the individual monastics at Harnham are, but the institutional structure follows the Forest Sangha tradition that stems from Thailand – from Wat Pah Nanachat. Ajaan Chah setup Wat Pah Nanachat to train westerners in Buddhism, and as a result the Forest Sangha tradition grew and established monasteries such as Harnham. I believe there might well be financial ties to the Thailand centre. In Thailand institutionally women cannot become the equivalent of monks or abbots, there are many women staying at monasteries but they are called Mae Chees. This is not the equivalent of monks who are called Bhikkhus, that equivalent status would be called Bhikkhuni. There is a Bhikkhuni who is abbess at Songdhammakalyani Monastery - “On 28 February 2003, Kabilsingh received full monastic ordination as a Bhikkhuni of the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka. She is Abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the only temple in Thailand where there are bhikkhunis” from here; more on Bhikkhuni Dhammananda here. Here is a Q&A on Women in Buddhism that she wrote, the questions she answers are revealing and to me reflect wider prevailing bad attitudes. I don’t know how her monastery is funded nor anything about her relations with the Thai Buddhist hierarchy.
What should be noted is that Bhikkhuni Dhammananda was ordained in Sri Lanka, both Thailand and Sri Lanka are predominantly Theravadan Buddhist countries. She could not be ordained within Thailand institution. I became aware of this because of a Bhikkhuni ordination performed by Ajaan Brahmavamso in 2009 – often known as Ajaan Brahm. He was abbot in a Forest Sangha monastery in Western Australia, and was expelled from the Thai Sangha (detailed formal explanation here) for performing such an ordination; as a monk born British he was honoured by the Queen years later. He is still abbot at the same monastery so it is not clear what expulsion meant – my uninformed view is that it was a show for the conservative in Thailand; maybe finance was affected.
In checking the links for this blogpost I discovered that Ajaan Brahm supports the Anukampa project. Bhikkhuni Canda is the director of this project, and it wants to establish a women-only monastery in the UK. Recommending Theravadan women-only monasteries was to have been a purpose of this blogpost as a way of not perpetuating patriarchy. As the OP says she can learn the teachings but is deterred by the male hierarchy. Being deterred by institutional failings concerns me so my conclusion was women-only space. Much better women are already organising such a space – this project; different Theravada women have organised women-only space – as I later found out. Unfortunately the issue for Anukampa appears to be money, and that is not likely to come from Thailand’s Theravadan elders.
The day after writing this first part I woke up thinking that Anukampa is the lotus that arose out of the mud of the systemic sexism in Theravada Buddhism and the Forest Sangha tradition – a typical Buddhist analogy that amused me. I checked the thread to see if Anukampa had been mentioned – it hadn’t. In checking the thread, amongst others I learned two things. Firstly there is a women-only Theravada monastery in the US. From about on their website “Karuna Buddhist Vihara (KBV) was founded in 2012 as a neighborhood monastery where Theravada Bhikkhunis live, where women train to become Bhikkhunis, where meditation and Dhamma teachings based on the Pali Canon are offered to the public, and where traditional chanting and ceremonies are conducted. KBV is incorporated as a non-profit, tax-exempt Buddhist church in the state of California.” The monastery appears independent of the Forest Sangha establishment although on the photos page the Bhikkhunis are meeting with Ajaan Brahm and at another time Ajaan Pasanno, the Abbot of Abhayagiri, a Forest Sangha monastery.
At the same time as I was following links from the thread I came across the Amaravati Female Monastic Community. Amaravati is the largest Forest Sangha monastery in the UK, but I don’t know whether this female monastic community functions as a women-only space. There was the careful statement on the page “In 1983, with the permission of the Elders in Thailand, the first four anagarikas were given the opportunity to become Ten Precept siladhara nuns at Chithurst, with Ajahn Sumedho as a preceptor.” “The Siladhara Order is a Theravada Buddhist female monastic order established by Ajahn Sumedho” wiki, which might well be described as a workaround to fit in with the “Elders in Thailand”. I note this from the same wiki “Despite Ajahn Sumedho's best efforts at balancing contending interests, many female monastics living at Amaravati at the time left the monastery citing discrimination and lack of compassion on the part of Amaravati leadership.” Subsequently, two siladharas from this group founded Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery, and their monastery is run by Saranaloka Foundation that appears to be independent of the Forest Sangha organisation.
The last sentence of the wiki is interesting on this issue. “Along with numerous other women in recent years, these former Siladharas have taken full bhikkhuni ordination.” In this wiki Bhikkhuni ordination is discussed in detail, I don’t know whether it refers to the nuns at Aloka Vihara. I don’t know how the status of these Bhikkunhis would be seen in Thailand, but the Bhikkhuni wiki clearly gives a way of legitimising Bhikkhuni lineage if the “Elders in Thailand” chose. In the writing of this blog I have spent tortuous time on institutional issues none of which have any connection to the path – just the institutional exclusion of some seekers on sexist grounds. In my view this issue is not egoic as some suggest. No religious institution should exclude people who want to follow the path yet there are many reasons people get excluded by institutions; given the way the West has developed such an exclusion is glaring especially given that the intention of the Forest Sangha was to target the west.
Coming back to Thailand I recall this quote from the OP “I’m participating in it being perpetuated”. Whenever I think of events at wats I have attended here in Thailand I recall a majority of women. Yet at the same time the majority of Thai women appear to accept that women cannot be monks – that it is some form of innate right for men. In Thailand the society consists of strong women, these are not feeble oppressed women despite the numerically-dominant male presence in power and overwhelming presence in power in Buddhism. In the formal declaration concerning Ajaan Brahm’s ordaining of Bhikkhunis it is said that the lineage is broken for women and not for men; that rationale is dubious at best. If required or desired, lineages broken by history can be mended by strong hearts; they could probably effect a change if they chose such as used in this Bhikkhuni ordination. However beyond presenting my limited views I cannot say more as I don’t know of the inner workings of the various Buddhist institutions.
As Zandtaomed my meditation teaching is built around Buddhadasa’s meditation technique as described in “Mindfulness with Breathing”. Buddhadasa was Thai – died in 93, extended his teachings beyond the usual Theravada, and established the Suan Mokkh monastery to his liking near Chaiya, Surat Thani district (Jangwat). There was still the male imbalance amongst the monks. Monthly there are teachings designed for westerners delivered at the International Dhamma Heritage near Suan Mokkh, and here is a traveller who has done the meditation retreat. I have visited Suan Mokkh itself, a pleasant “natural” wat, with Thai friends on a Buddhist holiday. It is an important centre for Thai people, and to my best recollection of the many people who were present on this religious holiday more than half were women; there is a centre for “nuns” and lay women to stay. (Please note that there is Suan Mokkh Bangkok at Chatuchak Park. This was established after Buddhadasa’s death, and does not have the same natural feel of the wat that he established when he was alive.) I have no reason to believe that the meditation retreat teachers are women; I would like to be able to say that this institution is different from the rest of Buddhist Thailand on this issue – but I don’t think it is.
In general the institutional practices of Buddhism concern me – as do the practices of all religious institutions. I will never forget the help given to me at Harnham, and recommend Buddhist monasteries as places of retreat even for non-Buddhists so long as the food times are not an issue. But in terms of following my path I very quickly decided that I would guide myself – and have as a backup renouncing and joining a monastery if there was no development. For me the discipline of the inner guide has been sufficient – could have done more could have done far less. And I know it is my path and my discipline, not a discipline imposed by the rules of another – whatever of the 4 Dhamma Comrades (of mindfulness, wisdom, concentration and wisdom-in-action) have developed come from my effort.
Globally the issue of safe space for women has become an issue even for people trying to follow the path with cases of abuse of vulnerable women being reported with some spiritual teachers. I would recommend these Forest Sangha monasteries as safe places for women, it is a shame there cannot be Forest Sangha women-only spaces. Along with the two women-only Theravada monasteries in the US, hopefully the Anukampa project will be able to provide such a space in the UK future. Is women-only space available at Amaravati? Contact them.
As part of Zandtaomed it is the individual teaching methodology that is importantly non-institutional (distance learning). For Theravada as with other Buddhist traditions the methodology is for the teacher (usually a monk) to sit on stage, and the seekers sit silently listening with questions at the end; meditation practice happens alone. For the more earnest seeker they can become monks at a monastery where individual teaching is bound to happen; but this mostly excludes women in the Theravada tradition. In the East I have read that there is concern about western egos generally - understandable as egos can be difficult to deal with up close, and to cope with this there is eastern discipline, a discipline that is much easier to cope with if someone has been brought up in an eastern society. As an aside the lotus position is second nature to most Thai students even those who avoid Buddhism. Zandtaomed works on an individual basis – in educational terms mixed ability – the teaching meets the seeker where they are at; the only requirements being daily meditation when they get up and a daily report back. There is no reason why monks couldn’t take a similar approach under the guidance of the abbot bringing along seekers whilst they themselves learn from the monks – and learn from the seekers.
Is this more individual approach more suited to women? That is for each person to decide. I do know in other environments such as politics women have criticised the more formal of structures as being “male”. In Zandtaomed’s case the teaching is not in person lessening the possibility of certain oppressive male attitudes.
But ultimately Zandtaomed methodology is concerning the teachings themselves, is that not the way forward for women having difficulty with the male establishment? At present I suspect that for many Eastern monks the teachings are what matters, and that teachings are considered by them as gender-neutral asking “what does it matter if gender-neutral teachings are delivered by men?” Would the feminism of the OP be considered as an ego by some men in the institution? I suspect so.
Here are some resources on Women in Buddhism - books in this folder. Here are the names of women in Buddhism mentioned in the thread. Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chodron, Roshi Joan Halifax - Upaya Zen Centre, KhandroRinpoche, Sylvia Boorstein, Dipa Ma, Mukti, Lama Shenpen Hookham, Ani Chödron at Panung Buddhist Centre, Ireland, Lama Tsulstrim - Tara Mandala, Domyo Burk - podcast, Tenzin Palmo, Robina Courtin, Thubten Chodrin, Charlotte Joko Beck, Shinge Roshi, Anh-Huong Nguyen.
I agree with the OP that participating in male Buddhist establishments reinforces the patriarchy; in Thailand the devotion of lay women particularly perpetuates a sexist institution that affects Theravada in the West where exclusion on the grounds of gender is such an outmoded situation. As Forest Sangha was designed for the West, in my view there needs to be a rethink; but such a rethink would then open similar doors in Thailand where at present there is not a strong demand. But the thread clearly shows there are alternatives - even within Theravada; but not equality.
My learning came mostly from Theravada, and the teachings can enable you to follow the path through the development of your inner strength and inner guide. Because of my view of institutions I mostly did that – Z-quest and Viveka-Zandtao, if that is not your way then this thread would be a good place for women to look for a suitable space.
[Note:- Whilst this is concerning Buddhism I have not included it as Zandtaomed Advice. I am not informed sufficiently of the decision-making of the establishments concerned to warrant the content as any more than my views (for me there is a clear distinction between views and teachings), and zblog is the place for writing my views. I am saddened that women are excluded as Bhikkhuni within the Thai establishment – a glaring exclusion, but there are many institutional weaknesses that hinder people from following their paths. It is the inertia of institutions that when such weaknesses appear they are so entrenched that clear minds do not prevail. It is this institutionalism that in part led to Viveka-Zandtao.]