Monday, October 28, 2013

Women in Theravada Buddhism: A Perspective from Santi

by Justine McGill

When I first encountered the community of Santi Forest Monastery and its abbot’s aspiration to help revive full ordination for women in Theravada Buddhism, I had not thought very much about the intersection of Buddhism and gender issues. In 2007 this meeting point came about because I volunteered to speak at an interfaith evening on “the purpose of life,” organized to raise funds for the monastery. When I made the offer, however, I was under the impression that the fundraiser was for a different Buddhist monastery. To my considerable surprise, it turned out there were two monasteries on the outskirts of Bundanoon, a picturesque village in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales in Australia. So my first contribution to the cause of improving women’s status in Theravada Buddhism happened by serendipitous chance.

In my talk that night, I suggested that what the philosopher can add to the general conviction that we don’t really know the purpose of life is the point that at least we know that we don’t know. But of course, all too often, we have no clue that we don’t know what we don’t know. In my case, the opposition of many to full ordination for women and the other problems facing women in Theravada Buddhism came as a series of unexpected shocks. My whole involvement with Santi could be described, somewhat euphemistically but also accurately, as a “learning experience.” It has involved moments of great happiness and inspiration, and also considerable disillusionment, as well as the realization that both are necessary in coming to see things as they really are.

My first impressions of the situation were colored by the general atmosphere of optimism and happy excitement that characterized Santi in those days. I was impressed and intrigued by the idealism and the swell of energy and goodwill to promote the place of women in Buddhism that animated this small community and its supporters under the inspiring leadership of the Australian monk, Bhante Sujato. I was also deeply touched by the supportive generosity of dana which is the principle on which all Theravada monasteries operate.

As I got to know the community better and learned more about issues that inspired this attempt to create a place for bhikkhunis (fully ordained Buddhist nuns), I came into contact with levels of dukkha that I had not encountered at such close quarters before. I realized that particularly in the West, where most people do not grow up as Buddhists, those who come to Buddhism usually do so because they are seeking a solution for suffering, and the level of intensity with which they throw themselves into a Buddhist lifestyle can sometimes be an indicator of the level of personal suffering they are seeking to escape or transform. The conditions at Santi, a new and rapidly changing forest monastery, were not always ideal for addressing the problems that individuals brought with them or discovered there. The environment was very beautiful, but it could also be harsh.

Bhante Sujato and Samaneri Patacara, who built the
wall mentioned in the blog 
In 2009 after the early confidence and excitement, a period of difficulties and disillusionment set in. This was provoked by the astonishingly impassioned conflicts between monks across the world that ensued after four bhikkhunis were ordained by the Bhikkhuni Sangha and confirmed by the Bhikkhu Sangha within the Bodhinyana Sima at Ajahn Brahm’s monastery in Perth. Many supporters felt their faith in Buddhist monasticism shaken by the bitterness of the conflicts. Most had not been aware of the depth of opposition to female ordination or the complexity of the politics around this issue.

In some respects the disillusionment that was sparked by the spectacle of certain monks attacking each other over the bhikkhuni ordinations was healthy, however. In the West, where monasticism is a rarity these days, I think we often have trouble understanding that respect for the robes should not equate to blind idealization of the people wearing them and conversely, that a person does not have to be inhumanly perfect in order to be a good nun or monk.

A year ago, Bhante Sujato resigned as abbot and left the monastery, hoping to hand over authority for leadership to bhikkhunis. The idea that women should take a leadership role at Santi seems to me self-evidently sound, but the transition to this new phase of development has so far been a bumpy road. As I write, Santi stands all but empty. For this year’s rains retreat, a couple of caretakers and the wild animals who have continued their own practices relatively undisturbed by all the dramas of human visitors were the only occupants.

This loss of momentum may seem a cause for sadness, tinged with regret for all the hopes and hard work invested in this place. When I dropped in recently, however, the atmosphere was remarkably peaceful and the buildings looked well cared for, shining in the sunlight of a cold but clear winter day. Standing behind the main building, my gaze was drawn along beautiful low stone walls, the work of a talented young samaneri (novice bhikkhuni), and out toward the bush and valley beyond. With a friend, I walked down to a meditation spot known as the women’s lookout and we marveled at the view, magnificent as ever.

I cannot imagine that Santi will remain empty for long. Although I am fully aware that I cannot know what will happen there next, I trust the intention that inspired all the work that has been done there in recent years will not be abandoned. May Santi continue to provide a focus for supporting bhikkhunis, bringing benefit to every part of the fourfold sangha, female and male, lay and monastic, as Bhante Sujato and the many people who helped create it envisioned. To achieve this may be a challenging task, one that is more difficult than it first appeared. But like the sandstone that has been broken and reassembled to form Santi’s decorative walls, sometimes things that have been broken and mended again become stronger and more beautiful than they were to begin with.

Editor's Note: A recent email update on Santi Bhikkhuni Monastery from US-based Bhikkhuni Ayya Tathaaloka explains that Santi will be structured on an “ancient type of Buddhist monastic community—one without abbess or abbot, communally led and communally cared for by consensus, guided by Vinaya and by vision and practice of the Dhamma, in friendship.” Monastic women are currently in the process of gathering together to be part of this new community. We extend our best wishes and gratitude to these courageous and determined women.

Justine McGill: Lecturer

Justine McGill teaches philosophy at the University of Melbourne and is currently studying psychology there. She has a chapter entitled "The Silencing of Women," forthcoming shortly in a collection which may interest readers of this blog, entitled Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? (Oxford University Press). She writes a blog called Tango Philosophy in which she attempts to allow philosophical thinking to gracefully follow the lead of other forms of thinking and experience, notably Buddhist forms.

1 comment:

  1. Its a deep reflective piece of thought on Santi. Thank you Justine, your thought is shared by many who've known Santi for the last 5 years. i also wish that Santi will be led by monastic community, where Bhikkhuni will have her voice heard.