A Response to a Brilliant Essay

Continuing the discussion from “Separate but Equal”, the ideal doctrine for Monastics?:

I agree. I think Ayya Vimala’s perspective offers all of us something: whether it be validation, challenge, simply a different perspective.

It is in kindly receiving this perspective that I feel I do my bit. Not in necessarily agreeing/disagreeing. Just in receiving it and seeing how it feels for me, how it might challenge me, or inform how I perceive in a kinder, gentler, wiser way.

I guess, in doing this, in having this attitude of listening attentively and accepting Ayya’s perspective, I am also allowing myself the opportunity to participate in what may sometimes be a messy conversation. But mess is part of life - it’s part of Dukkha. And to participate with respect and love and acceptance, to know when to remain still and silent and when to communicate, is part of the following aspirations.

I think these are beautiful aspirations and our Practice certainly equips us for the first one.

As to the second, I think we have far less sway. It is not always possible or even kind, to help others see things in another way… Indeed, I believe we have to tread very gently in this regard and often it is in just being who we are; in living our lives with integrity and grace that we can best influence others. In my experience, most people don’t like be told that their perceptions/behaviours are incorrect or harmful. Not out right anyway. :slight_smile: But there is a time to listen. And hopefully if all readers of Ayya’s essay bring their practice and their metta with them as they read, they will allow themselves to be challenged, allow themselves to feel uncomfortable. After all these are just feelings, we are just reading words. No one is making us do anything. There are no weapons here. Only kind intentions.

After reflecting in this way, I would like to add a few of my own experiences and thoughts to this thread.

So here’s a “thought experiment” based on the facts of my life right now. If I were to ordain, leave behind my nice life and my best friend (who I happen to be married to), some of the rules I believe I would have to follow, would assume that my marriage had been only about sex. Most if not all intimate relationships do involve sex - let’s not kid ourselves. But if you’re lucky, your intimacy is far more beautiful than this and it’s about family and friendship and support. I could no more cut my spouse completely out of my life, than I could cut my father or mother out of it.

I think the issue here is the definition of improper.

Furthermore, if you’re celibate and you want to continue to be celibate and lust is a bit of an issue you’re grappling with - then I can see how you might want to protect yourself.

But to me, it comes down to asking these question: In trying to protect myself, 'am I harming others or myself? In doing so 'am I actually creating bad kamma and thus harming my spiritual life further?

My understanding of the 8 Fold Path is that Kindness is a primary, structurally essential, foundation stone. It is part of the understanding that informs Right View and is of course essential to Right Intention and the rest of the Virtue components.

Thus such questions have to be asked because if we are to safeguard our own practice, we must put kindness first - even to ourselves.

At this point, perhaps you would ask the question about what the Buddha said and upholding the Vinaya and so on. I think Ayya has done brilliantly to address some of these questions.

I would like to add something further and use my dear, lovely old dad as a way of doing so.

Recently, my father had a conversation with someone. And this someone was saying that the head of an order of monks in Sri Lanka, who had been reputed to have been an arahant, had said that the Bhikkunis can’t be legitimate because they died out and that’s that.

My dad was brilliant.

Instead of talking about the legitimacy of the lineage which went to China or the validity of reviving the order through just the monks side (because the Buddha never said – according to the texts we have – that we shouldn’t do this - which is relevant if you’re into things like legalities…)

…instead of talking about the primacy of Kindness in Dhamma (which to me is highly relevant and I will come back to) he talked about that which is Dhamma and that which is worldly.

My lovely old dad said that while this monk may have been an arahant, and had a wonderful and secure grasp of Dhamma, he did not have a wonderful and secure grasp of worldly matters. My father, quite rightly pointed out that matters about Bhikkhuni ordination are to do with the world.

It’s interesting that in the texts the Buddha asks us to look to the Dhamma and the Vinaya. He makes a distinction between Dhamma and Vinaya. The Dhamma is something that just is. But the Vinaya is something the Buddha himself changed and adapted and asked us to also change and adapt – e.g. the use of the 4 great standards as just one bit of evidence for this.

The basis of the Vinaya, it seems to me, is kindness and compassion and flexibility; thus it is steeped and based in the Dhamma. A Teaching grounded in an understanding of conditionality and impermanence has to be flexible when it comes to it’s worldly face – because at their heart, that’s what conditionality and impermenance are about: flexibility, change, empty and unfixed cores.

While the Sangha offers us the best chance to keep the Buddha-Dhamma alive in a number of significant ways; it is still a worldly expression of something unworldly. The Vinaya/Patimokka is still of the world - intricately connected to the Dhamma - but not the core Dhamma. Necessary, brilliant often, but still of the world – teaching monastics how to relate to aspects of their world.

Now let me seemingly contradict myself.

If I were to ordain and leave behind the person who’s supported me emotionally, helped me grow in my practice and shown me such patience and kindness; I do so out a sense of confidence/faith/understanding in the Buddha’s teachings. Part of which includes the teaching on the terrible promises offered by the pleasures of the 5 senses. As opposed to the pleasures offered by the various stages - in particular the conclusive stages - of the 8/10 fold path. AN 4.206

Thus, I can imagine myself sitting in a kuti, possibly, suffering as a result of not having access to the previous emotional support and friendship of my best friend. And if after trying all other strategies to let such emotions go, they refuse to do so, I would have to just be open to them and let them teach me and disappear in their own time. And I believe there will be times when access to said best friend would help in this process and there would be times when access would hinder this process.

I’m not suggesting a rule change or anything. I’m just offering a different perspective. It’s common in Buddhist circles to hear men and women say how the opposite gender has caused them nothing but suffering. They blame someone else (the opposite gender) and are blind to the fact that their comments may infact be invalidating and silencing someone else’s story/perspective. Let alone the fact that they’re busy projecting their suffering and possibly even, lust, onto others instead of dealing with it themselves.

We assume so much when it comes to matters of gender; we assume that what is right for us, must be the same for all. Yes, we need to focus on what we have in common. If we take that to a very general level however and put it within the framework of the Dhamma, it’s about all of us having a need for kindness in our lives.

I deeply appreciate the perspective Ayya @Vimala has offered us. It resonates in many ways for me - there’s that common ground again.

But, I feel that my story/perspective is a bit different to this one and I feel that I have questions too… Thus while I value and applaud any efforts to make us focus on our humanity instead of our gender, I also want to go back to that whole “messiness” thing.

I have learned (and 'am learning) that human interaction of whatever kind is inherently messy. It’s full of misunderstandings and miscommunications. It’s entangled with different and often slightly similar perceptions colliding or even seemingly parallel.

Thus, more than anything, I believe we have to be kind.

And I believe to focus on our common humanity is to accept this inherent, unavoidable messiness.

Further I think “equal” is a heavily loaded word.

It means different things to different people.

Thus I want to go back to what I remember from the Buddha’s teachings about conceit; a teaching only, if memory serves me, only an Anagami, a being who has perfected Kindness, can truly understand and live:

From SN 46.112: There are 3 conceits. The conceit that I am better than another, that I am worse, that I am equal to.

To me all 3 measure and miss the point. I’m not saying I’ve understood this teaching or that I live it. I don’t. I can’t help it. I’m not there yet as much as I would like to be.

But I can appreciate it and I am grateful for where it points me.

It points me to be present to my reality and to navigate my life as it is right now. Not through any particular worldly ideology. Just to be kind to those before me right now is simple enough to be doable for my over complicated mind. And powerfully effective.

Often, I have thought that people, women, nuns, compare themselves and their sense of injustice against what those who seem to have all the power and status seem to do or have. But are those the values I aspire to? Is this comparison useful for me?

As a worldly example, people often applaud how amazing it is that women are now on the frontlines. Really? I think it should be the other way. The men should have considered the boundary (limitation?) previously placed upon women to be a virtue and nobody should be on the frontline in the army.

To choose a slightly less worldly example, there are I believe 3000 bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka who, are not officially recognised by the government because the elder monks in that country are not supportive.

Here I would like to quote Bhante Sujato from his old blog, from the last piece of writing there so far:

Buddhist nuns now have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do away with the feudal hierarchies. Don’t choose hierarchy over vinaya. Don’t choose to let this happen, and then, when it doesn’t work out, undermine your own authority by asking monks to fix it.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the government in SL don’t recognise the nuns officially. Perhaps it’s better this way. Perhaps what matters is that the genuine Buddhists in SL recognise them - grassroots, lay support and the support of a growing number of younger, better informed monks.

I can’t help but draw an example from my own life again.

Recently a couple of people I was close to died. I loved both these people. One was a dear friend, the other a close relative.

As I watched my heart, I saw the most interesting responses vying for my attention. How could I acknowledge them all without contradiction? Does acknowledgement of an emotion or perception or thought mean diving right into it and “being it”?

For me, it’s about choice and recognition. The choice to choose the emotion that serves me best…to focus on it more. The recognition that the barest grazing over the surface is just as valid as deep submergence – if it leads to a lasting peace, a true letting go.

Listening to nuns write about the issues they have had to face, I can’t help wondering how they are approaching them. And I mean no disrespect whatsoever. It’s just a gentle, respectful question.

I know there’s a lot of crap out there that nuns have to bear. I know that. I have heard some horror stories. But I can’t help wondering if we take on too much of the stories that don’t belong to us – take ownership over them as if they are our own. And thus neglect our own story and our own work on ourselves. I am only saying this because I see this tendency in myself. Sometimes, nowadays, even the part of the story that is “mine”…I find myself discarding as not serving me.

I am talking about “stories”. Not people. I am not saying we shouldn’t do something to minimise or completely eliminate the horror stories from happening. We should. Always as much as we can.

But I am talking about the thoughts and emotions we carry in our heads. The stories. Not the stories as they point to real people. But the stories as they point to our endless ruminations, perceptions, delusions, attachments, thoughts and emotional entanglements.

People use the Teachings on letting go to stop people from talking about the very real unkindnesses that they face. Sometimes they use this to stop a big group of people - like women or nuns. The fact that personal or institutional unkindnesses ocurr to anyone – regardless of gender, should be of concern to us all. Statistically, when it becomes apparent that one group (however society choses to define that group currently) is more harmed – that should be of even greater concern to us.

These paragraphs perhaps seem contradictory. Should we let go? Or should we acknowledge? Both. But we need to learn when one is needed and when both are needed and how. And both need consideration and a kind listening.

There are a number of complex issues to be considered when thinking about going forth. As a woman.

In some places, it’s as basic as physical survival.

In others, access to ordination.

For some, it’s, “will I be safe?” - emotionally and physically - yeah, I am talking about various kinds of abuse.

And some are in a position to question deeper structures of institutional power. This is where I think Ayya Vimala’s essay sits. And it is as valid and relevant as any other concerns.

It becomes part of the communication, the conversation we all have as Buddhists who care.

This is where some very specific questions/requests come in for me.

In previous writing, Ayya has mentioned that she (and others) are not seeking to attack any particular monk. Rather, she is referring to unquestioned institutional practices. I believe she is suggesting that these practices need to at least be talked about. Certainly investigated and studied further and in particular in light of the following:

Thus I believe in writing her powerful essay and stating the need for such work, Ayya has become a part of the process for change. It is conversations that create change, because they are gentle and have the power to go to people’s hearts. It is those gentle spoken to, humble hearts that do small things in their lives that cause a cascade of big changes to occur in a manner that includes, that does not exclude - that puts kindness first.

We have to find, however difficult, ways of listening to those who challenge us.

Yes, sometimes, we have to say, look, I am sorry, but I am not emotionally/spiritually able to deal with your lack of wisdom and kindness and we put boundaries in place. But if we try to do so out of love for ourselves and others, and a sense of honesty about where we are at in our development, not expecting miracles of ourselves or anyone else, we will actually be accepting the messiness, the Suffering inherent in all human interactions.

Sometimes, time, leaving things alone is more powerful than stirring a pot continuously. Other times, we need essays like Ayya Vimala’s. And other times…well…there’s a bunch of wholesome stuff that grows and flowers here and there…good people, practising earnestly do the most unexpectedly wise kind things and life changes for a bunch of others as a result. It’s not just “shit” that happens. :slight_smile:

So here’s my biggest, most specific question.

I get the feeling that some readers are confused. They don’t have the same life experiences and conditioning as, for instance, Ayya @Vimala.

So I would like to ask that some specific, anonymous, examples be provided of some of the institutional practices referred to. I noticed in another thread, people were confused and assumed that specific monks had behaved badly towards nuns.

This is a perfect example of the imperfect messy, conditioned nature of human communication. We all come from different places and operate through different paradigms. It’s okay. But sometimes to help ease this, you have to be very clear and specific.

Make it crystal clear what you mean. It’s a way of minimising harm too. Give examples. Don’t mention people or institutions directly if possible - unless they really are unwholesome in their ways of course, and then call them out! But give examples so we all know what you mean. We might not necessarily perceive these examples the way you do. But at least we can hear you better, see you better, understand better and accept your story as yours and thus valid.

Some of this messiness comes in acknowledging the highly individual and conditioned nature of gender. As Ayya says:

But most of us, most of the world’s story about most of us, is about a duality when it comes to gender. It’s a story told in myth, in movie, in everyday life stories. It’s power and delusion is based on each of our births and how our birth into this body comes about. It’s born out of that creative force which makes most ordinary folk marvel – that sex can produce life. People get side-tracked by this. Think it is “the” truth.

But it’s just one out of many natural processes. My personal opinion on this is: who cares? Sex between two genders creates life – big deal. I’ll be amazed and make a big deal out of it when it stops death.

Besides, beings evolve. What makes people think this sort of duality is set in stone. Even this is impermenent. Maybe we’ll evolve to the point that being intersex is the norm and we just pollinate ourselves if we want to have a kid.

People make such a fuss over this business. I don’t care mostly. But when it makes people unkind to others…that’s different. Then I care.

Media said in another thread:

These statements, stayed with me.

They informed my heart. I didn’t fight them, judge them or even agree wildly. But I listened. It was a very gentle thing.

But this also resonates deeply with me:

This is the messiness of gender conditioning.

Indeed this conditioning must have been equally strong in the Buddha’s time for it would seem that we could make a case for their having been two separate Sanghas purely from the following:

But then I would be quoting Ayya out of context in a way which doesn’t honour her intention. Here’s the full quote:

Perhaps this is a radical notion to us. Because of who we think we are and what we think we are and all the conditionings that have shaped us. Our reaction to this also demonstrates how we identify with Buddhism and what we think it is.

But as Ayya says, the lack of a parallel isn’t proof. And the text does seem to indicate separation of Sanghas.

The degree of their equality is not really the point for me. This attempt to make things the same, to measure one by the history and rules of another. To see which is better, which is worse, which is equal. It misses the point.

The point is to be kind and respectful. That is what I got out reading this:

Emphasis added.

The point is the Buddha was responsive and compassionate to the conditions of his time. He was kind and it was the Dhamma that informed his kindness. That much I will believe quite easily – based on what I have heard the texts say and on my heart’s practice.

Today, we can do the same. But we must not try and make everyone the same.

I love my local nuns’ monastery. And they are quite separate from my local monks monastery (which I also love). The nuns here are rather strict in keeping their rules but to me, having stayed and talked with them a little bit, they seem freer than I do. Despite the normal difficulties they face in the lives as women, monastics, human beings.

Gender still makes itself felt. In old ways and new. In ways that were old but unkindly surpressed but are now coming to light. If gender didn’t influence us – regardless of it’s trueness or delusory nature – we wouldn’t need to talk about lgbtqin or women or men or mothers or fathers or lovers or workplace inequality or poverty or war or well…almost anything…

Yes these are just worldly, external conditionings. Stories that shape us and we allow them to shape us when we expose ourselves to particular groups, settings or media.

But they are not everyone’s story.

I think if we stop focusing on making everyone’s story the same and just listen kindly to each other, there really wouldn’t be so many problems. We’d stop blaming other people for our own lust, delusions, hate. We would accept each other as we are, with less of those three conceits influencing us. We wouldn’t need to have the letters lgbtqin because we’d just see people as people. And we’d have the courage and the kindness and the wisdom to speak and share our own stories when we feel the time is right. Which is what Ayya has done - often.

So many seeming contradictions though. Because yes, we need to focus on our commonalities. But we also need to acknowledge our differences, because what makes us people, what makes us human and have things in common within our humanity – is our conditioned nature, our desire for love and experience of suffering – and while there is so much the same, there are also significant differences. It’s why it’s always best to put kindness first.

How does this inform the Sangha? This is what I believe Ayya is asking. Or perhaps, how can these kinds of Dhamma reflections, influence the Sangha to make it more likely to produce amazing beings who can benefit themselves and others? Because the Buddha did make that distinction between the Dhamma and the Vinaya – they aren’t the same – connected, but not the same.

People get really upset when the Vinaya is questioned. So upset they forget the primary, core, essential aspects of the Dhamma. That very same Dhamma which the Buddha himself worshipped. Kindness. If you can’t be kind – wisely kind – there’s little you can say that will inspire me or make me listen or read what you write. Not because I choose this – it’s just a natural thing. Kindness and peace and wisdom go hand in hand – they draw you in, lead you on to liberation. It’s just nature, a natural phenomenon.

I guess what I am trying to say is. Let’s listen to different perspectives with kindness and respect. If Ayya Vimala wishes to set up a monastery based on the best resources she can find about what the Buddha would have actually supported, my advice to everyone else would be: put kindness first. Be kind to her. Listen. Be gentle. Protect your own practice in this way; and support and enourage her to follow her heart and thus protect her own practice.

In supporting and protecting each others’ practice, we protect the Dhamma and honour the Buddha.

Let kindness be the rudder in the mess of human conversations on gender or pretty much anything else.

With metta


I have not yet read the prior conversation which this is split from. But I cannot love this enough. Yes your dad was/is brilliant. And kind and i think correct. I too never talk with monastics or even Buddhists I do not know about my relationship with my best friend/partner/almost guru with whom i walk through this life. I think i am blessed in this. So many good things in this essay which i plan to reread thoughtfully several times, and which resonates beautifully with the new sutta translation i have just read with joy (and benefit i hope) about two kinds of thought. Yes the Buddha gave us lots of lists, but it is all To Be Of Use. And that usefullness cannot come before or instead of Kindness, without misrepresenting the Blessed One.

Thank you. Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu, i am delighted you are or might be in my sangha, and our sangha!


Thanks ERose :slight_smile:

I’m very glad if something here was helpful in any way at all.

Yes, usefulness in practice is a thing that should be emphasised more. :slight_smile:


Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu !

with metta



Thanks so much, Kay.


Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!

Your words come from the heart.

I’d like to share a short poem I once wrote.

In this universe //
Unbeknownst to me //
I choose kindness //
To be my guide //
Wherever it goes //
I will follow

With metta, Robbie


That’s beautiful @Robbie, thanks for sharing your poem.

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