Monday, May 11, 2015

“We must get back to the real roots of our Buddhist culture”

An interview with Ven. Bodhicitta by Raymond Lam

Ven. Bodhicitta
In March, Buddhistdoor International published an editorial about the era of simultaneous crisis and opportunity for the Theravada sangha across the traditional Buddhist world. The problems for the sangha, while always influenced by politics, social forces, and shifting economic dynamics, are largely internal: nationalism, sexism (and in some cases institutional gynophobia) and a lack of education form a triple-pronged threat to the Theravada sangha’s moral authority (and for some critics, outright relevance). Yet the other face of crisis is opportunity:  In both Asia and the West, watchers and commentators of Buddhism’s story in the globalizing world are noticing several hotspots where events may well reverberate across Asia and influence social justice movements positively.

Take, for example, the recent establishment of a Buddhist college for nuns in Sri Lanka. Regardless of the politics (and monks are always political in Sri Lanka), it is difficult to disagree that this is a millennial milestone for the country’s Buddhist community, and it is one example of turning the crisis of women’s lack of opportunity to practice into a chance to strengthen and reform the sangha – something that all Buddhists surely agree is a good thing.

One of the nuns bearing witness to these changes is Ven. Bodhicitta, founder of the Nisala Arana in Molkawa. Like many pro-bhikkhuni teachers across the world, Ven. Bodhicitta believes that traditional Buddhist values were never patriarchal, androcentric, misogynistic or sexist to begin with. She therefore does not accept the a priori fusion of the Buddhist story with the male experience, and like many feminists, seeks to entangle social conditioning from reality. “Most traditional societies have been conservative, but I don’t think this is the issue. The problem in places like Thailand is more to do with an overarching patriarchy,” she says. “Men are seen as leaders and promoted to positions of authority in patriarchal society, whereas women always have to take a second place, a subordinated place, in society.”

She believes the situation for Sri Lankan society is different, as it was less affected by patriarchal values than some of the other societies like Thailand. “There have been positive contributions made by women to the Sasana. It is perhaps because of this it has been easier for women to retake their rightful place in Buddhism in Sri Lanka than in other places, where any change is seen as a direct threat to the social order.”

What roles have women exactly played? “Traditionally, the mother has been the center of the family in Sri Lanka and has therefore been central to teaching ethics, morals, customs and values that are inherent in Buddhism and the cultural milieu. Because of this they were often the first teachers for the children and the primary role models that led by example as practicing Buddhists. Sri Lankan women tend to be very pious and this would often inspire the children and set them a good example,” says the Venerable. Many times the teachers at Sunday Dhamma School, which are a regular feature in nearly all temples in Sri Lanka, would be women, and not only for Buddhism but for other subjects too, such as languages and arts. Of course, this also meant they had to play their role in organizing religious events and ensuring that the menfolk would lend their hands to helping out as well. Of course, the main support for the Sangha over the years has always been the Sri Lankan women, providing the requisites of food and medicinal drinks, sewing the Kathina robes etc. They are also the main participants at all Sangha events, whether it be pujas, teachings or meditation classes.

Cultural trends and social shifts have indicated possible changes to these traditional roles in contemporary society. “During the colonial period, many non-Buddhist influences entered the country, especially with the introduction of missionary schools or reservation of special places in society for Christians. This has continued with globalization, which has produced a lot of discontentment in society, and promoted consumerism, rather than contentment, as the answer to dissatisfaction,” says Ven. Bodhicitta.

“Other structural changes have arisen through the introduction of western-style education, which has opened opportunities for women to enter medicine, engineering, management, accounting and all kinds of jobs they didn't have access to before. Also with the changing economic pressures, women have sometimes had to join the local labour force and go abroad for work, and this has also served to displace them from their traditional roles in the families.” Therefore, while women still support the Sangha as organizers and teachers, they are less able now to be of direct support in serving dana. “This is likely to become a growing problem in future generations, as more time has to be spent on economics and less on family and sangha support. This is a very serious issue given their traditional role.”

With the old Sri Lankan values shifting and the prioritization of economics over religious culture (especially with the younger generation, who are surrounded by the globalized culture of capitalism), Sri Lanka can no longer take women’s services for granted (and never should have). It is therefore ever more important to throw open the doors of religious authority to women, to roll out the red carpet for those who wish to serve Buddhism because they will be a minority. Ven. Bodhicitta is encouraged to note that there has been some progress, thanks to allies who exert influence and authority and enjoy access to the levers of power (allies of this stripe are desperately needed), typically monks.

“What I see is that in the countries where the monks are stepping forward and giving recognition to the nuns, success is probable. There has been much support from certain local monks in Sri Lanka, especially Ven Inamaluwe Sumangala at Dambulla, Ven Kirama Wimalajothi in Colombo, Ven. Saranankara in Kuala Lumpur, Ven. Bodagama Candima in Manelwatte, and others. They have been supporting and organizing higher ordination for women for some time now,” she says.

“Also, women themselves bear some responsibility to come forward and be prepared to take the limelight in promoting their own welfare a bit more. From personal experience, I can relate that when I first met my teacher, Ven. Punnaji, he was against higher ordination for women. But when he saw how I was living and practicing the monastic life, he not only relented but also became a supporter of bhikkhuni ordination. So good examples really do make a difference.” Universities have also been a boon for women, who can study higher education in Pali and Buddhist studies. All in all, there are some positive signs in the country, but much more needs to be done, and Ven. Bodhicitta hopes that the government can be more proactive in taking on the responsibility of protecting and promoting civic rights in the country, including women’s rights.

What of the frequent accusations that the women’s fightback is largely a western-led, feminist project to undermine traditional Asian cultural norms? “It has probably been more difficult for Asian women [to be leaders],” replies Ven. Bodhicitta, “because from birth the culture instills a sense of inferiority in them, so it has taken a lot of confidence and courage for the sisters named above to be able to step outside of their cultural norms, and say that they are not going to accept this any more, and we must get back to the real roots of our Buddhist culture.”

Ven. Bodhicitta pays particular tribute to Bhikkhuni Kusuma in Sri Lanka and Ven. Dhammananda in Thailand, who are leading the reintroduction of bhikkhuni ordination. It is thanks to their having had a solid education, and knowing how to argue their ideas convincingly to others, virtues that need to be extended to as many women as possible. “In places like Thailand and Myanmar, because there is no support directly from the monks, it has been much harder to get the bhikkhuni order established or even considered,” she says. She is adamant on this point: monks need to step forward and speak out in favour of women’s ordination rights. This will also have the effect of helping women find their own voice and being able to take the next step forward. “Many women I have spoken to about this have said that if there is wider recognition they would certainly have more inclination to ordain, Many fear to go against the status quo and be locked into a battle they were not seeking, as all they want is the chance to live the spiritual life fully.”

Ven. Bodhicitta’s vision is inclusive, therefore, of the traditional beneficiaries of Buddhist patriarchy. All she asks is that monks and men consider the proposition that religious authority and influence is not a zero-sum game. Men do not lose anything by sharing influence with women (except pride). Indeed, moral authority, like wealth or karmic merit, grows and expands when everyone has a chance. We all know that men have done good things for the Dharma, but imagine how much more they could achieve with women at the podium, giving the Dharma talk, writing the leader column, or establishing new monasteries. Side-by-side, the Fourfold Community can prove that Buddhism is truly transcendent and free from the worldly dichotomies of sexism and gender division.

Ven Bodhicitta is a Sri Lankan nun. After completing her education in Sri Lanka she did her degree in Bio-Medicine in Melbourne. She was ordained as a samanneri in India in 2007 under P. Seewali Maha Nayaka Thero at Bodh Gaya and received her Bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka under the tutelage of Ven. Dr. M. Punnaji Maha Thera and Ven. Dr. Bhikkhuni Kusuma in 2010.

She is the founder of the Melbourne Nisala Arana and the Nisala Arana Nun’s Monastery and Retreat Center in Sri Lanka, founded mainly in order to help women and nuns in Sri Lanka as a place where they can get training in the monastic life and experience in meditation.

See http://www.nisalaarana.lk and http://www.nisalaarana.org for more information

Photo Credit: 
Photo 1: Raymond Lam
Photo 2: Photosightfaces via Compfight cc
Photo 3: Poorfish via Compfight cc
Photo 4: Raymond Lam

Raymond Lam: Editor and Journalist

Raymond received lay ordination as an upasaka (attendant) of the Chinese Vinaya tradition and is a practitioner of Mahayana Pure Land Buddhism. A journalist of religion by trade, he is the senior corespondent for Buddhistdoor International. He is also an archivist of the Awakening Buddhist Women Resource Library. He is a member of the International Ch’an Buddhism Institute and the Hong Kong Journalists' Association. His major interests are Silk Road studies, history, comparative theology, and Huayan Buddhism.

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