Saturday, April 27, 2013

Thai Buddhism: Mai Pen Rai

Mai pen rai: never mind or don't bother?

For most westerners living in Thailand, a striking aspect of the Thai psychology is the attitude of mai pen rai (Thai: ไม่เป็นไร). This outlook dominates much of Thai culture & society, and whilst at first can appear attractive to foreigners new to Thai ways, it is invariably eventually viewed somewhat negatively. So, what it is? There are several translations for the term in English, the most common being 'never mind,' 'don't worry,' 'don't bother,' 'no problem,' 'it's okay,' & 'it doesn't matter.' In line with the Thai concerns with saving face and minimizing conflict, mai pen rai is uttered innumerable times during an average Thai person's life. So, when a mistake is made, a minor disagreement occurs, or someone cannot comply with a request, mai pen rai may be employed. Often accompanied by the way (pressing hands together in a prayer gesture) & a smile, it reduces tension in a variety of settings, including the home, the work place, school, the market, and even the sports field. 

There, however, what many westerners might see as a dark side to mai pen rai. On occasions, it seems to be used to avoid responsibility, or to justify inaction. Examples would be parents allowing children as young as twelve - sometimes younger - to ride motorbikes, which is a common sight in Thailand. This lack of parental care is astounding, given the widely-observable pride taken in children. When the water is cut off and in need of restoration, mai pen rai may be invoked to justify a lackadaisical approach to restoring the supply. Even when someone dies, and there may be questions of culpability, the phrase may be used to evade justice. On a daily basis, dishonesty & laziness, & are also covered with the term; no wonder people coming from cultures where honesty & taking responsibility for one's actions are expected, find living in Thailand an infuriating experience.

What are the origins of this quintessentially Thai attitude to life? Well, many credit it to Buddhism, which permeates so much of Thai cultural practices. In Buddhism, non-confrontation, forgiveness, and not getting upset are considered virtues all Buddhists should endeavor to cultivate. When taken to the extreme, however, it can be used in ways that don't seem to be Buddhist at all, such as avoiding responsibility for one's actions (which flies in the face of the Buddhist teaching on karma). Of course, any approach to life that is used without wisdom will have negative consequences. Wisdom in Buddhism is developed through meditation & reflection, but in truth very few Thais practice these disciplines. Therefore, the more negative manifestations of mai pen rai are commonly witnessed in the country.

That mai pen rai has some relationship to Buddhism seems clear; it is its application that decides just how in line with the teachings of the Buddha that will decide its efficaciousness. A way to understand this, and in the process adapt better to Thai culture, is to use mai pen rai as kind of mantra or meditation object. Rather than blindly accepting it or reacting against it, the phrase can be used as a source of Buddhist reflection. Buddhist teachers often teach the use of mantras to quieten the mind or establish concentration. They can also be used as a meditation tool when they possess a positive message. This message can then be the focus of contemplation and it can become manifest as an attitude or quality of mind.

In Thailand, particularly in the forest meditation tradition, the word Buddho (Thai: พุทโธ่), which is a variation on 'Buddha,' is used in the way described above. Having the meanings of 'awakened,' 'enlightened,' 'knowing,' it has obvious qualities to it that can benefit the meditator. Another word documented being used in this way is the word citta (A Buddhist word meaning 'mind'). Using this word can focus the mind upon itself, creating a state of self-reflection. Mai pen rai, though not traditionally used in this way, can certainly have similar results. Establishing an attitude that means 'never mind' and 'it's okay' can calm the mind and reduce stress. It moments of potential confrontation, it can also reduce the causes of conflict.

One way to utilize this technique is to use it through the day in response to situations in which negative reactions are coming up in the mind. As soon as there is awareness of such a feeling, utter mai pen rai. Accompanying this inner recitation, should be a feeling of letting go applied to the said negative emotion. Repeat the phrase until the original feeling dissipates, and then take note of the positive result. Keep doing this as each occurrence of negativity comes up. At first, this will be difficult, as the mind will follow its usual patterns in these situations; but with perseverance, the negative mind states will reduce. Another method is to establish the mind in a state of 'never mind' by remembering mai pen rai before any negativity arises. This way, when problems occur, the prevailing mentality will be one of letting go, so that problematic thought patterns will have less chance to get a grip of. The mind will not cling to such processes and their results, but rather observe them with equanimity.

Mai pen rai is, then, a psychological kingpin of Thai culture. It is also a cause for irresponsible inaction. Looking a little deeper, though, it is an attitude of mind that can relive us of attaching to certain things and outcomes which can cause contention & suffering. Keeping mai pen rai with us puts us in closer relationship with Thai attitudes, enabling an level of understanding that most foreigners find evasive. It can free us of so many petty clinging that separate us from the reality of this moment. And, in doing so, leads us to that placeless place where there is no division between here & there, me & you. All this from remembering the phrase mai pen ray or one of its variants such as 'never mind' or baw pen yang (Northeast Thai: บ่เป็นหยัง). The latter is this writer's favorite, living in Northeast Thailand. Why not try it, and find a little bit of Thailand in your heart?

Monday, April 22, 2013

'The Unborn,' by Ajahn Sumedho

"The statement in the [Buddhist] scripture that really inspired me years ago, that really meant a lot to me a the time:

There is the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, and therefore there is an escape from the born, created, formed, originated. If it were not for the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, there would be no escape from the born, created, formed, originated, but because there is the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, there is an escape, there is liberation from the born, created, formed, originated (Udana VIII.3).

This puts it in terms of the unborn and the born, the uncreated and the created, the unoriginated and the originated. These are words, yes, but the born, the formed, the originated, these are sankhara, mental formations, aren't they?

What we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think, feel, the four elements - the earth, fire, eater and wind elements - the thoughts, the memories, the feelings - pleasant, painful, neutral feeling - the physical body, in fact all experience, the whole universe, is the created, the born, the formed, the originated. So that means everything, everything you can think of, imagine, feel, experience…but there is the escape, there is liberation from the born the created, the originated. There is the unborn. So then reflect on what is the unborn, unformed, uncreated, unoriginated."

Taken from a teaching entitled 'Refuge in Awareness' by Ajahn Sumedho. More on the book in which it appears (on pp.215-216) can be read here: Review: The Sound of Silence.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Animal Welfare

A monkey 'enjoying' itself in a Bangkok zoo.

When I look at my two dogs, I do not see organic machines or hairy objects to be kicked around with impunity. I see living beings with feelings & the ability to suffer like all sentient beings. Humans are not unique in these respects. Both dogs have attachments which when unsatisfied clearly bring suffering. For example, when my wife goes out, the younger dog will sit by the door looking forlorn, but when she returns, both animals jump around excitedly yelping with apparent delight (as I do!). Witnessing such attachments & resultant suffering, compassion arises for these creatures, just as it does for humans.

However, when we look around at how people in general treat animals, the story is very different. I come from Britain, a country that prides itself on being 'animal lovers,' and yet, cruelty to animals is widely practiced in the UK. For sure, many, many people pamper their pets, whether they be dogs, cats, parrots, pythons or stick insects. But, away from these personal examples of kindness to animals (much of which is born of attachment & personal interest), there is much to be saddened by. I recall a story a (reliable) friend told me when we were teenagers that one day he came across a hedgehog. For some reason, the thought came into his mind to kick the creature. This he did continuously until the helpless animal perished. Normally, this friend was a friendly, likable person, but when confronted with a wild animal to which he had no attachment, he mercilessly killed it.

Of course, the above tale is an unusually gruesome example of human nastiness to animals. But other, somewhat less horrible occurrences of animal cruelty can easily be observed. I recall witnessing another friend of mine, around twenty years ago, kicking his springer spaniel in the ribs because she was too 'scatty.' She was a hunting dog, and prior to motherhood had been a fine companion on my associates wanderings through the Welsh countryside. But, despite being a 'spiritual guy,' and something of a guru to quite a number of people, this man thought it perfectly okay to treat his dog this way. I have also witnessed other people, known and unknown to me, treating animals with a lack of concern if not actual cruelty, and I would be surprised if most of my readers could not recall similar occasions in their own lives.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we think ourselves the owners of animals. We say, "This is my dog," and we mean it in the same possessive manner that we might state, "This is my car." (And, as cars are way more expensive than your average mutt, the latter is often likely to be valued less than the former.) We do not normally speak of people in the same way. When we say, "This is my wife," we are not equating her with inanimate objects that we possess, but stating a more equal relationship. This, of course, is not true of all places & all times, so in the past wives were thought of as possessions, and in some societies to this day, such thinking continues.

But, do animals really belong to us in the way a car does? With pets, many of us would surely say not, stating old standards like, "A dog is a man's best friend." But, does this appreciation really extend beyond what we get out of these animals? When they don't supply us with the comfort that we expect from them, do we still feel positively towards them, caring about their wellbeing or do we consider them a burden to be rid of, like the pervebial puppy ditched after Christmas. So, while a dog may well be someone's best friend, can we say the following with certainty: "A man is a dog's best friend." Friendship should be mutual and equal, after all, shouldn't it?

On a visit to a zoo in Bangkok, looking at the animals in somewhat small enclosures aroused a feeling of sadness. A bear, admittedly in a larger area than most, repetitively wandered up and down on the edge of a moat, looking for a way out. It did not look particularly happy, although admittedly the facial expressions of bears are not a speciality of mine! The caged monkeys looked rather bored in their pens, too, although it may have been the effects of the midmorning heat. The overall impression of the zoo was of a place where animals were prisoners, locked in cages as living exhibits unable to escape to the freedom they'd probably prefer. (Having said this, it should be noted that the natural habitats that these creatures would normally live in have largely been destroyed, so zoos may be their only possible home for the time being.)

Staying with Thailand for a moment, it is worth noting that even in a country that considers itself Buddhist, cruelty towards, and lack of concern for, animals is widespread. This despite the Buddha encouraging his disciples to have compassion and kindness for all creatures. Generally, Thais seem unconcerned with the sufferings of animals, and don't give them a second thought apart from which ones to eat next. Of course, there are those that have pets and look after them with love, but even these people often appear to lack considerate for any other creatures. A common practice in Thai Buddhist temples is for visitors to pay so they can set free caged birds. But, no-one appears to care about the birds themselves, it is the merit that the humans involved will gain for setting them free that is of prime importance. And who put the birds in cages in the frost place? Possibly those receiving all that lovely dose for letting them go; do they make merit for their part in this? (It has been told to me by some Thais that the birds used are actually trained to fly back to the cages afterwards, anyway. They are somewhat domesticated, and no-one is really freeing them as they have been conditioned to return to captivity!)

As carnivores, the human species and its evolutionary forebears have eaten meat for millions of years. Today, this remains the case for the vast majority of the human race. Seeing film of animals being slaughtered is not a pretty sight, and depending on the methods used, it is often not a painless one, either. Moreover, battery hens crammed in tiny cages like 'egg machines' (which is how they are presumably viewed by those that keep them there) is another distressing image. Those of us that do not eat meat or intensively farmed eggs cannot rest on our laurels, either. For anyone that is part of a society that treats animals in these ways is to some extent responsible. Everyone concerned with animal welfare should be playing their part to improve animals' living conditions in the human world. This can be done through pressure groups, politics, and everyday actions and speech; to shy away from communicating about these issues is to abandon these animals to their fate.

Animal welfare should be of prime concern to Buddhists, as we have received teachings that highly regard kindness to animals. But, if Thailand is typical of Buddhist cultures across Asia on this issue - and there is no reason to assume that it isn't - Buddhists have absolutely no reason to feel that they treat animals better than others do. Whatever our beliefs, as human beings, we can observe the suffering of other creatures, and we can take measures to alleviate that suffering. This, of course, includes other people, but it should also include other animals, for our hearts are reflected in the ways that we treat such creatures. Outer cruelty and neglect are indicative of inner failings, and if we wish to develop as both Buddhists and as a species in general, animal welfare should be one of our top priorities.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: A Still Forest Pool, by Jack Kornfield & Paul Breiter

Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. Yu will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.
(A Still Forest Pool,

There are some books that just touch the heart, lifting it to a place of peace & inspiration. A Still Forest Pool is such a book. Its editors Jack Kornfield & Paul Breiter were students of the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah, even ordaining as Buddhist monks for a number of years before returning to the USA. Some time later, they decided to compile this wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes and teachings of the late ajahn ('ajahn' is Thai for teacher).

The book is divided into seven parts, each dealing with a different aspect of Buddhist practice, their titles indicating their contents. Examples are 'Our Life is Our Practice,' 'Meditation and Formal Practice' & 'Lessons in the Forest.' It is worth noting here that Ajahn Chah was a forest monk, who originally wondered the dwindling woodlands of Thailand, practicing the Buddhist path under a canopy of trees. Eventually, he was invited to establish a forest monastery near his home village in the northeast of Thailand. Now, there are branch monasteries not only all over Thailand, but also across the globe, in such places as the US, the UK, Australia, Switzerland & Italy.

In the first chapter, entitled 'Understanding the Buddha's Teachings,' Ajahn Chah teaches about basic Buddhist teachings such as the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path & where to focus our efforts - right here in the person that is taken to be the self. This, he teaches, will lead to the realization of anatta ('not-self'), not as an intellectual understanding, but as an existential one. A favorite story of Ajahn Chah appears in this section of the book, and it illustrates Ajahn Chah's practical & direct approach to the Buddha's teachings:

One day, a famous woman lecturer on Buddhist metaphysics came to see Ajahn Chah. This woman gave periodic teachings in Bangkok on the abhidharma and complex Buddhist psychology. In talking to Ajahn Chah, she detailed how important it was for people to understand Buddhist psychology and how much her students benefited from their study with her. She asked him whether he agreed with the importance of such understanding.

"Yes, very important", he agreed.

Delighted, she further questioned whether he had his own students learn abhidharma.

"Oh, yes, of course."

And where, she asked, did he recommend they start, which books and studies were best?

"Only here," he said, pointing to his heart, "only here."
(Ibid, p.12)

A central emphasis of Ajahn Chah's teaching was the importance of the mind. In the second part, 'Correcting Our Views,' he points out that it is in our own minds that we will discover the truths of Buddhism, and that through meditation these truths will become clear to us. Kornfield & Breiter have ordered the teachings in a way that insight follows insight, allowing the wisdom of Ajahn Chah to unfold bit by bit, like a tap (or faucet) dripping in the silence. Indeed, there are no long segments of text, with many pieces less than a page long, lowing the reader to treat them as separate meditations to be reflected on. Famous for his colorful & ear-catching similes, Ajahn Chah often uses everyday images to illustrate Buddhist teachings, as shown in 'Sense Objects and the Mind':

This practice is like caring for a buffalo and a rice field. The mind is like the buffalo that wants to eat the rice plants, sense objects; the one who knows is the owner. Consider the comparison. When you tend a buffalo, you let it go free but you keep watch over it. You cannot be heedless. If it goes close to the rice plants, you shout at it and it retreats. If it is stubborn and will not obey your voice, you take a stick and hit it. Do not fall asleep in the daytime and let everything go. If you do, you will have no rice plants left, for sure.
(Ibid. p.p.37-38)

Two running themes throughout A Still Forest Pool are the interrelated subjects of meditation & mindfulness. As a forest monk, Ajahn Chah himself spent hours meditating, deepening his insight into the three characteristics of existence (impermanency, suffering & not-self), along with other important Buddhist concepts. These practices, including sitting & walking meditations, as well as general mindfulness throughout the day, are promoted in the book again and again. Moreover, Ajahn Chah emphasizes that it is our responsibility to develop a meditative mindset, and not look to blame outer circumstances for failings in our practice, whether residing in a forest monastery or elsewhere. This latter point is vividly demonstrated in the segment entitled 'Learning Concentration': 

In our practice, we think that noises, cars, voices, sights, are distractions that come and bother us when we want to be quiet. But who is bothering whom? Actually, we are the ones who go and bother them. The car, the sound, is just following its own nature. We bother things through some false idea that they are outside us and cling to the ideal of remaining quiet, undisturbed.

Learn to see that it is not things that bother us, that we go out to bother them. See the world as a mirror. It is all a reflection of mind. When you know this, you can grow in every moment, and every experience reveals truth and brings understanding.
(Ibid. p.89)

The last part of the book is a collection questions from Ajahn Chah's students, answered by the latter with his usual incisive wit & clarity. This section reveals the living, interactive element of Ajahn Chah's realizations and teaching styles. For, his was not a dry, philosophical outlook, nor a manipulative master-disciple relationship, but rather a compassionate explanation of Buddhist truths & practices, enabling his students to see for themselves 'the taste of freedom.' A Still Forest Pool is a glorious little book, full of the wisdom of the great Thai forest monks of the Twentieth Century, and this reviewer recommends it wholeheartedly: Get it, now! To finish with, we will quote an answer Ajahn Chah gave to a question asking what the main points of their discussion had been; it's as valid today as it was then, several decades ago in the forests of northeast Thailand.

You must examine yourself. Know who you are. Know your body and mind by simply watching. In sitting, in sleeping, in eating, know your limits. Use wisdom. The practice is not to try to achieve anything. Just be mindful of what is. Our whole meditation is to look directly at the heart / mind. You will see suffering; its cause, and its end. But you must have much patience and endurance. Gradually you will learn. The Buddha taught his disciples to stay with their teacher for at least five years.

Don't practice too strictly. Don't get caught up with outward form. Simply be natural and watch that. Our monk's discipline and monastic rules are very important. They create a simple and harmonious environment. Use them well. But remember, the essence of the monk's discipline is watching intention, examining the heart. You must have wisdom.

Watching others is bad practice. Don't discriminate. Would you get upset at a small tree in the forest for not being tall and straight like some of the others? Don't judge other people. There are all varieties-no need to carry the burden of wishing to change them all.

You must learn the value of giving and of devotion. Be patient; practice morality; live simply and naturally; watch the mind. This practice will lead you to unselfishness and peace.
(Ibid. pp.169-170)

The book is available for purchase here: ~ A Still Forest Pool

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dhammapada Reflection #1

Verses 1 & 2:

Mind precedes all states.
Mind is their chief;
They are mind-made.
If one speaks or acts 
With an impure mind,
Suffering will follow,
Just as the wheel 
Follows the ox's hoof.

Mind precedes all states.
Mind is their chief;
They are mind-made.
If one speaks or acts 
With a pure mind,
Happiness will follow,
Like an ever-present shadow.

It is appropriate that mind (mano in the ancient Indian Pali language) is the first word in the Dhammapada. For, whereas the idea of a soul is central to so many of the world's great - and not-so-great - religions, it is mind that is the focus of Buddhist teachings. It is the mind that Buddhists endeavor to perfect, avoiding unwholesome states and cultivating wholesome ones. And, it is in the mind that the ultimate goal of Buddhism, nirvana, is to be experienced. Moreover, the practices of meditation & mindfulness are mental undertakings that with development lead to that awakening that gave the founder of Buddhism his title. (Buddha means 'awakened one' or 'enlightened one.') 

In the first two verses of the Dhammapada, the Buddha declares that 'mind precedes all states.' The word translated as 'states' here is dhamma, a word that has a wide meaning, covering such diverse areas as things, processes, mental conditions, phenomena, law, doctrine and the Buddhist Teachings. When referring to the latter three meanings, it is usually written Dhamma (Sanskrit, Dharma), and this is not the meaning traditionally attributed to the word by Buddhist scholars & teachers. Rather, it is as both mental & physical phenomena, or 'things,' that dhamma is defined as in the first two verses of the Dhammapada. 

That mental phenomena are conditioned by the mind in which they occur is easy enough to understand and accept. As many Buddhist can testify, we can see this happening in our own minds when meditating. And, even if we don't meditate, we can think back to recent events in our lives and see how the state of the mind conditioned the feelings and thoughts that arose in it. Indeed, if this was not the case, the whole system of Buddhist mental training (bhavana) would fail pathetically. Moreover, any kind of mental training would be impossible if the mind could not be cultivated in certain directions,from learning a language to brainwashing people into becoming terrorists. Thankfully, in Buddhism mental training is set on establishing virtuous behavior and mindfulness, rather than creating trained killers!

Seeing how the mind 'precedes' or is the 'chief' of physical phenomena is less obvious to most of us, however. With a little effort, though, this too can be understood and observed. When the mind is in a certain state, the body will appear differently. For instance, if the mind is in a negative mood, the body can seem overly fat or too thin. Moreover, if the mind is of a gluttonous nature, then the body may well end up obese, or the reverse, as when the Buddha was an ascetic prior to his enlightenment and was said to have been skeletal in appearance. 

In Buddhist understanding, an impure mind is one that is unawakened to its true, empty nature; suffering arises because we live from impure mind states, caught up in the delusion of self. This is a simplification of the first two of the four noble truths, the essential teachings of the Buddha. The first noble truth is that there is suffering. By suffering is also meant painful, angst-ridden, or unsatisfactory, all of which are translations for the Buddhist term dukkha. The second noble truth is the cause of suffering, which is desire (tanha). This is the result of the delusion of being a self, which clings to certain things and rejects others, causing inner conflict and turmoil. And, as the first verse of the Dhammapada states, suffering will follow the impure mind just as the wheel of a cart will follow the foot of the ox pulling it.

The second verse hints at the third and fourth noble truths. The third is that the ending (nirodha) of desire is the ending of suffering, and the fourth is the path (magga) that leads to this end. If we purify the mind - and one of the many names of 'Buddhism' is Visuddhimagga, 'the path of purification' - then whatever we do will come from this purified state, and will be conducive to a happy outcome. Simply put, the path (or 'noble eightfold path') has three main trainings to undertake, in morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) & wisdom (panya). if the mind & the mental, verbal & physical actions that come from it are purified by walking the path, then the 'shadow' of happiness will not only be experienced by the Buddhist practitioner, but also by all that she or he comes into contact with.

The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

More Nuns Please, We're Buddhist!

If the Buddha accepted bhukkhunis, can't we?

According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha established both an order of monks (bhikkhu-sangha) & an order of nuns (bhikkhuni-sangha). Admittedly, ancient Buddhist texts claim that he was reluctant to do so, claiming that Buddhism wouldn't last as long as it otherwise would have because of women's ordination, but he did nevertheless acknowledge that women are as capable as men when it comes to realizing nirvana, the ultimate end of the Buddhist life. And, in the same Buddhist texts, enlightened bhikkhunis appear throughout its pages, supplying us with examples of why an order of nuns is of value. Not that enlightenment is restricted to monks & nuns in Buddhism, but it is generally accepted that the life of a renunciate is much more conducive to achieving nirvana. Whatever the case, Buddhism is very much still alive today, and there are people intent on realizing 'the deathless' through living the ordained life. There is a problem here, however, for in some Buddhist traditions, the order of nuns has died out, and there is extreme resistance to reestablishing it.

In many countries adhering to the newer Mahayana Buddhism, such as China & Vietnam, fully ordained Buddhist nuns survive, in places like Sri Lanka & Thailand, where the older Theravada Buddhism prevails, no bhikkhunis can be found. This is because in the case of Sri Lanka, the order of nuns is said to have died out several hundred years ago; in Thailand, it is widely accepted that the bhikkhuni-sangha was never established in the first place. It is natural for the urge for enlightenment to arise in the hearts of women as well as men, so in both countries unofficial nuns are tolerated: dasa sil matha in Sri Lanka and mae-chi in Thailand. Neither of these are given the honor and status that monks are in these countries, however, and women that do take up such disciplines face hardships and obstacles that the monks do not.

Some radical groups in Sri Lanka and Thailand have started ordaining women as fully ordained nuns, and two well known bhikkhunis are Venerable Bodhicitta in the former and Venerable Dhammananda in the latter. Both were ordained in Sri Lanka, with the latter returning to her native Thailand to set up a nunnery there called Wat Songkhammakalayani. Whilst receiving some enthusiastic support, such nuns are yet to be accepted by the Buddhist hierarchy in either country, however, organizations 'manned' by monks. It would appear that male renunciants do not want to see their female equivalents, and are determined to keep women in their place, as merit-making supporters of the monks. This is surely a narrow-minded view, with little compassion for women wishing to live the enlightened life, potentially sharing it with all they encounter.

There are other, less controversial efforts to revitalize women's spiritual roles in Theravada Buddhism, however. Within the constraints of the mae-chi tradition in Thailand, for example, there is small movement of novice nuns seeing interest from young girls and their parents. These girls, some as young as five, take temporary ordination during the school holidays, in much the same way as boys do within the bhikkhu-sangha. This is a fledgling development within Thai Buddhism, however, and mae-chi remain widely ignored by the majority of Thai Buddhists, as the merit gained by giving alms to them is considered less valuable than if given to fully-ordained monks. 

In the west, the widely-respected forest sangha which began in Thailand under the guidance of the Thai bhikkhu Ajahn Chah, has long had female renunciants. These are not bhikkhunis, though, but are something like glorified mae-chi, called 'siladhara,' following ten precepts and not the three hundred plus rules of fully ordained nuns. The siladhara were started by Ajahn Sumedho, a famous American Monk who trained under Ajahn Chah, and a small number of them are sprinkled across the globe in various Buddhist nunneries. For some years there have been complaints that nuns should have parity with their male counterparts, and siladharas do not fulfill this aspiration in the eyes of many. Ajahn Brahm, a popular British monk in Australia, permitted the full ordination of four bhikkhunis in his monastery, Bodhinyana. This resulted in Ajahn Brahm and the monastery being 'disassociated' from the Ajahn Chah movement back in Thailand by senior monks there. 

As Buddhism has moved through Asia over the last two-and-a-half thousand years, it has changed to suit local needs and traditions. This is most clearly illustrated by the wide variety of schools found in Mahayana Buddhist cultures, such as Pure Land, Zen and Tibetan forms of Buddhism. And even within the more conservative Theravada Buddhism, there are differences between its forms found in Sri Lanka, Burma & Thailand. That nuns still exist in some Mahayana schools should be an encouragement to those modernists with Theravada Buddhism to push forth with the reestablishment of the bhikkhuni-sangha. Indeed, Mahayana nuns are crucial to this movement in its early stages as they can fulfill the need for at least five fully ordained nuns to be present at the ordination of new nuns. A thriving world community of meditating nuns intent on nirvana can only enrich Buddhism, as well as continuing the Buddha's own acknowledgement that they have a right to exist. More nuns please, we're Buddhist!

For more on this issue, please read the following post: No Nuns Please, We're Buddhist!