On Bhikkhunis, Renegades, Monasteries and Retreats!
~An Informal Interview with Ajahn Brahm, speaking to Ven Canda, on 19th January, 2018 (truncated: full interview available here)
VC: What basis is there for legal objections to bhikkhuni ordination?
AB: Basically, there are no (viable) legal objections. Its only politics.
VC: Many people cite the idea that the bhikkhuni lineage died out in the Theravada tradition and so the bhikkhuni ordinations now are not actually legal.
AB: That is not correct- the lineage depends on the authenticity of the ordination procedure (common to Mahayana and Theravada). That authenticity has been maintained from the Sri Lankan (tradition) to the Chinese, then back from the Chinese to the Sri Lankan. This has happened in the bhikkhu sangha too, many, many times. When it has died out in one place, it is re-planted from strong roots in other countries, and that was foreseen by the Buddha, so that it is very difficult for any of the sangha to die out.
VC: Some people call you a ‘renegade monk’ because they think that you brought something back that is going against tradition. How do you see yourself?
AB: I was with Ajahn Chah when there was a monk sent from Bangkok to investigate him, because there were complaints about Ajahn Chah for being… a renegade. His keeping the vinaya rule not to accept or receive money was embarrassing people in Bangkok. When anybody looks at tradition they will find I’m a very traditional monk. Because I am very traditional and some monks have become very lax, they will dismiss you as a renegade. Even in the Franciscan tradition, St Francis was invited by the Pope for a big feast. He took one look at the feast and went out on alms round to get some scraps from poor people and he gave those scraps to the Cardinal and Pope to show what a real mendicant should be like. St Francis was a ‘renegade.’ So, sometimes we do need those so-called renegades: The Martin Luther’s, the Rosa Parks’s (and Rosa Parks was a Buddhist when she passed away). These people were regarded as renegades because they saw some inequality- some terrible things going against fundamental human rights and fairness- and stood up. But they were strong enough to resist that (label) and became icons of freedom.
VC: How will the bhikkhuni sangha contribute to Buddhism as a whole?
AB: It has been well known through many studies that societies that have equity for women, especially in leadership positions have far less incidence of domestic violence, sexual abuse and prostitution. Giving equity solves a huge number of social problems- we don’t look at a person as (a particular) race, religion or gender: if they can do the work, they get the job and they are paid for their work, not their gender.
VC: Do you think that female monastics will have a special role in enriching Buddhism in some way?
AB: Very much so, simply because we talk about compassion, fairness and equality- and we must have authenticity. A Dutch monk (at Bodhinyana Monastery) had to ask his parents for permission to ordain and his parents asked him, ‘Is there equity in the monastery where you wish to ordain? Do they treat women with the same respect as men? Are there bhikkhunis?’ He said ‘Yes!’, and that Ajahn Brahm is one of the leaders in bringing that equity back into Buddhism. At that, they said ‘Ah, OK, you may ordain.’
Bhikkhuni ordination of Ven's Upekkha, Gotami, Karunika and Canda, Dhammasara Monastery, Perth
VC: (In the context of Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project), could you please share what you feel is the hardest thing about establishing a monastery?
AB: Of course, the hardest thing is getting the people on board and from those people, getting commitment. Even today, just doing a marriage blessing, that commitment (has) to be there long enough to that cause (so they) never give in. It’s the difference between bacon and eggs: the chicken is only involved but the pig is committed! So, the hardest thing starting off any monastery for bhikkhunis is to get commitment. To determine you’re not going to stop, you’re going to keep on going. Then people realise it’s in everybody’s interest- we’re going to make this happen! Bhikkhunis are here; they’re going to stay! Now is the time to support them.
VC: What is the most rewarding thing about establishing a monastery and seeing a good monastery run well?
AB: The most rewarding thing is that even though you may be very tired- you give a lot, you really sacrifice- it’s called ‘renunciation’. Of yourself. It’s called ‘letting go.’ Many people say those words: ‘renunciation’, ‘compassion’, ‘letting go,’ but most don’t have an idea what they mean. They want to practice for themselves, to be supported; they feel entitled. But when you sacrifice, let go, relinquish, physically you feel tired but emotionally and spiritually you have this huge store of energy called ‘kamma.’ People talk about kamma, but you do that- you give. When you do things like that then people see just how much you have sacrificed, Venerable Canda; what I have sacrificed as well, and they find out ‘Wow! That’s inspiring, we also want to help and to give.’
VC: Do you get a lot of joy seeing people benefit from the monastery?
AB: Oh absolutely. Even today at the wedding ceremony, some people came over from Germany and they were saying how much they appreciated ‘Die Kuh, Die Weinte’ book (i.e. ‘The Cow That Cried’, aka ‘Opening the Door of Your Heart’). The groom wanted me to do the wedding to bring the spirituality of monastic life into their life together and there was just so much you could add to that occasion.
VC: We (Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project) only opened bookings for Ajahn Brahmali’s (first UK) retreat about 4 days ago, and I’m just amazed that we are already nearly full!
AB: Well, that’s quite slow- when I’m doing a retreat here (in Perth) its usually 5 or 6 minutes!
VC: And a lot of newcomers too, who’ve never sat meditation retreats before. They want to come because they feel Ajahn Brahmali can give them an introduction to what Buddhism really is- the whole context of the teachings.
AB: Also, because of who he is. You can teach like a scholar, you can know Pali better than Ajahn Brahmali and myself, but if you don’t understand where they are coming from, you cannot tie them to the experience of the Eight-Fold Noble Path. If you have lived those teachings, not just studied them, they have far more power.
VC: That's what we tried to convey; that the teachings are conveyed with so much joy and inspiration.
AB: Because you’re living it :-)