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On the illegality of Bhik(kh/s)uni Ordination

As a layperson and an Ameircan, I’m somewhat confused and was wondering if those more knowledgeable could help explain. In some parts of explaining my confusion, I may use examples that are more extreme than the central topic of this thread. I want to be clear up front that I am not trying to compare anything people are actually doing to these more extreme situations, just trying to use corner cases to illuminate the whole boundaries.

First, I’d like to understand how far these antidiscrimination laws in other countries reach. In the US freedom of association and freedom of religion are enshrined much more highly in our constitution. Generally, it is only private secular corporations (for-profit or not) with more than 15 employees who are subject to these laws (additionally government entities are held to higher standards). Even a very large formal club is free to discriminate on the basis of gender, like the Daughters of the American Revolution, whose membership is restricted to women (I don’t know their stance on Trans identity), and further restricted on the basis of lineage (one ancestor who contributed to independence). It is also 100% legal for, for example, a small restaurant with 10 employees to only hire people from the proprietor’s family or home country. Finally, the government just has nothing to say about groups that do not engage with either the formal legal system, commercial enterprise, or certain forms of criminal conspiracy. So, for example, there could be a 20-member exclusively straight cis white male Anglican group who just meet up to have little parties together, and it wouldn’t just be legal, but would basically be invisible to the government. How many of those things would be illegal in Belgium or Australia?

The second thing I’d like to understand is how the Vinaya is supposed to interact with local laws. First off, aside from the rules that directly relate to local law (like the rule against a monk helping to smuggle goods through a customs checkpoint to assist a layperson to avoid paying taxes), are there any direct statements from the Buddha on the topic of how Vinaya and law are meant to interact?

Do most ordained sangha communities actually have a legal existence, with ordination entailing formal membership? My understanding had been that it was more nuanced, particularly in the west, with the legally incorporated entity being a fundamentally lay organization, pooling lay resources together to be used at lay discretion, interacting with the monastic community only in that the organization gives things to them and listens to them (perhaps appointing either an Abbot or someone chosen by an Abbot to an office like “Spiritual Director”, but that being a sort of “coincidence” without the organization determining who the abbot is). I did not think that there was anything visible to the government that was an incorporated entity with exclusively ordained membership rolls that grow every time someone was ordained and shrink every time someone is defrocked. Thus it was my understanding that in western countries governments had no visibility into or stance on who was or was not ordained.

Regarding kutis it was my understanding that most of the Vinaya restrictions only applied to kutis without a sponsor and the work around was that most monastics live in sponsored housing. Is this incorrect?

Further, I’m curious how this is thought to interact with rules of more moral consequence. One thing I know is somewhat regular, but have never thought about from this angle, is exterminations to comply with health codes. I know that these happen from time to time, and always sort of figured that it was viewed similarly to, say, a monastic trainee killing a mosquito that was biting him, but scaled up. Is it instead the general view that health codes supersede the 61st confession rule?

Sincere thanks to anyone who can clarify an illuminate.

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13 posts were split to a new topic: Should the Vinaya be kept secret from the laity?

Good question! I really don’t know, but I suspect not.

Indeed. Ven Akaliko and myself have been somewhat involved in this, and the Buddhist community opposes these changes.

What has happened in Australia is that the same-sex marriage debate revealed that some minority communities in Australia can be wooed by pushing legislation whose purpose is to harm the LQBTQI+ community, or to erode rights for women.

When I was at such a meeting in the NSW Parliament, I saw that all the religions were represented by 100% men, except for Buddhism. I proposed that we all try to invite more women to be present, given that we were discussing such questions as the legality of abortion. The Liberal MP laughed it off, saying that even his own party had a long way to go to achieve equality. He wasn’t wrong.

I think that’s a complicated legal question, and probably varies a lot from place to place.

In Thailand, for example, the Sangha is administered under an official Sangha Act, with leaders appointed by the King, so their relationship with the law is different from Australia.

Yes, the Vinaya states that “kings should be obeyed”, i.e. that the Sangha should follow whatever local laws there are. This principle is applied in several cases in the Vinaya itself, for example, we should not ordain someone who is wanted by the authorities.

Not as such, no.

It varies, but yes, this is often the case.

That’s correct. In Australia they will sometimes refer to the Buddhist Councils or ASA in questionable cases, eg. deciding on a visa, etc. The biggest direct concern that the Aust gov has had with monks is when they come on religious visas then disrobe.

More or less, yes. Monastics usually don’t own the kutis we live in, so many of the Vinaya rules are treated as loose guidelines.

Tough one! What we do first of all is try our very best to build so that bugs don’t come. At Santi, for example, we made no enclosed cupboards in the kitchen, as that helps minimize cockroaches. For buildings, if making from scratch it is possible to termite-proof them pretty well.

In cases where there are pests that either cause a genuine threat or are in violation of health codes, monastics have been known to turn a blind eye as lay people take care of it. I don’t think there’s a good answer to this problem; some things are not black and white.

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2 posts were merged into an existing topic: Is there such mention in the Sutta about Microbes being predicted by the Buddha?

Thank you all for your thoughts on these matters. Especially Bhante @Sujato’s experience in other countries is very helpful. Right now Buddhism has not been recognized YET so it is the right time to really look into this and all your posts are a great help to make the issues clear.

Another loophole that will exist in Belgium is that the “Separation of Church and State” will only come into effect for members of the Buddhist Union. Not all Buddhist organizations have chosen to become members. So those outside always fall under the law. But of course it would be better if we could do something within the Buddhist Union itself as this will have a much greater support base and can also linked to the European umbrella organization, the European Buddhist Union.

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I’m very pleased to see this topic discussed once again among Buddhists. Full ordination of nuns in the Theravada tradition will be accepted throughout the Buddhist world where ordained and lay Buddhists pursue the issue respectfully and with patience. Buddhism was never about rules and regulations needing to be set in stone.

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I’m confused by what’s being suggested here. I’m female and support Bhikkhuni ordination, but the idea of the government FORCING it on monasteries is….horrifying? Like, that’s an authoritarian abuse of religious freedom right there. Is that what people are suggesting, using anti-discrimination laws to force ordination of nuns?

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I understood this to mean using the anti-discrimination laws to ensure, not enforce, that women who want higher ordination can get it.

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Once again, I don’t understand this. It’s not the business of the government of a secular state to ensure there are opportunities for women to become Bhikkhunis. It’s the business of individual Buddhists to provide these opportunities.

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Yes, the ordination is entirely the right and duty of the individual Buddhist Sangha.

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I don’t think anyone is saying that a sexist community that is against bhikkhuni ordination should be forced to perform it and allow bhikkhunis to reside in their community. What woman would want to live in such an environment anyway? Especially if they had the choice of ordaining in a community that welcomed them? So that is a moot point. Anti-discriminatory laws would protect the bhikkhunis from harassment by sexist male monastic establishments. See the link I provided to another D&D post where a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni community had their land taken away by monks over some trumped up BS allegations. Bhante Sujato has also talked about how after Ajahn Brahm and his monks ordained bhikkhunis, Wat Pah Pong went to all of their branch monasteries in the West and made sure that would never happen again by threatening to disown them unless they swore to never ordain bhikkhunis. Wat Pah Pong even tried to take over Bodhinyana monastery at one point, which they couldn’t do because it wasn’t actually owned or controlled by Wat Pah Pong in any legal sense. They even had protesters stand outside Bodhinyana for a while.

It’s quite normal to have an independent, objective 3rd party be responsible for making sure that rules and regulations are being followed. This happens in engineering, where you have 3rd parties who do testing to make sure that things are made to spec. Why is this done? Because people can’t always be trusted to do the right thing. I hope that isn’t a surprise to anyone. For a recent example of how this can go wrong, see the Boeing 737 MAX scandal, where the FAA was allowing Boeing to self report on its own compliance with safety standards. When it comes to human rights issues, this is also why groups like the NAACP in America exist. If you allow white male dominated industries, institutions, etc., to be solely responsible for ensuring that sexism and racism doesn’t exist in the form of unequal pay for women or POC not being given the opportunity to advance, then guess what happens? It’s quite simple, really. Would we put the responsibility of ensuring that female genital mutilation isn’t being done to young Muslim women solely in the hands of Muslims? Of course not. Sadly, Buddhists aren’t any more trustworthy than non-Buddhists. Some kind of oversight needs to be in place to make sure that sexism doesn’t infiltrate the sangha (anymore than it already has) so that women are ensured the freedom to pursue their religious beliefs.

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I think what @TheSynergist is pointing out is a very valid point! ‘Government’ is made up of people too. There is absolutely no reason to think that the people who make up Government are any better than our fellow Buddhists. ‘Government’ is actually the biggest, baddest bully out there. “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help”. Simply “to serve and to protect”. Once society goes down that particular rabbit hole, its just a matter of time before rules brought in ‘for our own good’ end up being used against us all.

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This thread is about women’s and bhikkhuni’s rights, not fears, paranoia, or conspiracy theories about Big Brother. @moderators please consider creating a separate thread where people can discuss such things, if such a topic even accords with the spirit of the forum.

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I think it’s slightly more nuanced.

The argument, as I understand it, is to use secular law to enable ordination of women. So far as I understand it, right now there’s two debatably (literally - people can and do debate them) legal origins for Theravada Bhikkuni:

  • The lineages created using the argument that Dharmaguptaka nuns can be used to meet the quorum requirements for the final version of the Bhikkuni ordination ceremony created by the Buddha

  • The lineages created using the argument that it is allowable to use an earlier version of the Bhikkuni ordination ceremony which does not require the presence of nuns, in the case where there are no nuns available

This is essentially discussing adding a third:

  • Lineages created using the argument that in a country with anti-discrimination laws, it is allowable to follow these laws in ordination.

None of the laws being discussed can, so far as I am aware, force anyone to be ordained. In a country with truly obscene laws (e.g. promoting parricide) the sangha could just refuse to carry out ordinations.

The horrors of authoritarian government and its interactions with the Sangha are a separate issue that is well-trodden debate territory and something we’ve seen in actual history (e.g. Japan).

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I share your concerns. Personally I take a more libertarian approach to such things. If religious freedom is to mean anything, and Buddhism is a religion, then monasteries who do not wish to ordain nuns should be allowed not to do so and those who wish to ordain them should be allowed to do so, both without harassment etc. This of course ties into free speech, since the two are deeply entwined. Undermine religious freedom and you undermine freedom of speech and thought, and vice versa. Government has no business deciding what is and isn’t correct religion or religious practice, as long as said religious practice does not violate the rights of another individual. Stopping women from ordaining does violate human rights, but so would forcing monks to ordain them. These are my main concerns regarding this highly divisive topic.

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I wonder if this discussion has strayed back into the realm of the binary male/female - bhikkhu/bhikkhuni or if the original post orientation toward the opportunity for ordination to be available for all genders is still part of the discussion. I understand “all genders” to include transgender, non-binary, gender-fluid and other self-identified genders (i.e. not just cis-gendered men and cis-gendered women.)

Using the laws for non discrimination based on gender, I think we can bring more public and Saṅgha awareness to what is ethical, compassionate, and sustainable in today’s world. This awareness can then support the door for ordination be open to all genders.

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That may be what you advocate as a citizen of your nation, but we have no business deciding what is and isn’t correct for other nation’s governments. As I said earlier, I am an American and find much of this European and Australian law quite odd, but that is the same as how I find the laws in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, and all other Buddhist nations odd at times.

Nobody was advocating to change laws to force the Sangha to do things. They were saying, “given that the laws are already as such, that may enable us to do the following”.

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I disagree. All humans have rights, no matter where they are. Once you accept that then you recognise certain restraints that should exist on the power of the state. If a state is violating said rights then it is abusing its power. Regarding what was proposed, I merely voiced my concerns. If the result is not forcing monks to ordain women or non-binary people but simply allowing said people to ordain in monasteries that recognise their validity then I have no problem. If it does however result in forcing monks to ordain them then it is a problem. The only barrier I see to the ordination of women and non-binary people in the west is simply a lack of places that wish to do it.

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To put the idea within a Buddhist context, the Sangha has from the beginning followed the Vinaya injunction to “obey the rule of kings”. In other words, Sangha should follow the law of the land.

If it is the case that the law of the land forbids discrimination based on gender; and if it also guarantees the right to practice one’s religion in accordance with one’s conscience (these being the two criteria that were deemed relevant by the Thai Senate Select Committee); then there is no ground for a legally constituted body (such as the Thai Sangha Council) to make legally enforceable rulings that contradict these things.

In such a case, the Sangha Council would be acting in a way that is extra-legal and potentially illegal. As a body established under the Constitution, it has no right to make rulings that contradict the Constitution. (Note that the rules in question were made long before the Senate Inquiry, and under a different Constitution; presumably the Sangha Council would not be in violation of the law unless it actually enforced such rulings. Also, bear in mind that 20 years and several Constitutions have passed since then!)

So the problem is not the hypothetical one that a State might force Sangha to ordain bhikkhunis; but the actual one that a State-appointed body is extra-legally preventing Sangha from bhikkhuni ordination.

The same logic might apply in other countries. But typically the argument then is not based on national law, but on Thai law: the argument goes that because it is (supposedly) illegal in Thailand it cannot be done elsewhere. Nonsense, of course, but here we are.

In non-Buddhist countries, the relevant legal body is not a Sangha Council, but the law under which an organization is incorporated, and which conveys it the right to own land, to receive donations, and to benefit from services supplied by the State. The State does not, cannot, and should not, provide these things to those who are not willing to follow the law. That’s the deal. If you want to discriminate, go somewhere that allows you to do that.

I think it’s appalling that religious bodies that enforce discrimination, whether it be the Vatican or discriminatory Sanghas such as Wat Pa Pong, are allowed to function as charities and receive benefits from the State. In Australia, we have seen a concerted and ongoing effort by discriminatory religious organizations to prevent or roll back human rights. It’s a betrayal of the very purpose of spiritual life. We should be in the forefront, showing leadership, uplifting and challenging ourselves to do better, not clawing humanity back to the dark ages.

Ordination in Thailand is, even in the case of the bhikkhus, co-opted by the State in ways that contradict the Vinaya, for example, by requiring that the State appoint the upajjhaya, or having a king appoint a Council to rule the Sangha. The various nikayas in different countries also change the ordination procedure, for example, by only performing ordination with monks within the nikaya, or in some cases by ordaining according to caste.

The tradition finds these changes acceptable, so why can we not find it in our hearts to treat women and gender-diverse people as equals and as spiritual practitioners deserving of dignity and respect?

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You’re free to start a new thread yourself at any time you wish, but I’m not willing to split the thread again at this stage.

The thread was made to discuss the relationship between Buddhist Communities and Governments in different countries, I can’t see that anybody is off-topic.

When we are discussing certain topics it is highly likely that there will be disagreements of opinion, for the simple fact that Buddhists do have different opinions about these topics, so this is a really good moment to remind ourselves to listen carefully and speak gently.

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