The Buddhist sangha is perhaps the longest-lived institution in world history. It has diffused across time and space over a period of more than 2,500 years. It has traversed the globe through diverse, culturally adaptable communities that betray a clear (if not always successful) attempt to maintain continuity with traditions transmitted millennia ago. More Vinaya lineages and doctrinal schools have died out than those that are extant, but the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana have all survived in some form or another.
Like so many religious traditions, the greatest threat to one of these vehicles, the Theravada, comes from within. Theravada Buddhism as a whole is facing nothing less than a crisis, and it is critical to study how solutions can be mobilized. Already in South and Southeast Asia, serious questions about the Theravada sangha’s moral and social authority are being debated.
This dramatic assertion comes from none other than the British Theravada monk Ajahn Brahm and Indologist Richard Gombrich, who came to The University of Hong Kong to share a dialogue about this issue on 11 March. They come from fundamentally different positions—a non-Buddhist who is still pro-Buddhist, Gombrich believes that there is no longer any significant difference between monks and laypeople in their potential to be ethical and liberated. Ajahn Brahm still believes that monasticism provides a vehicle for inspiration and moral restraint, and offers more potential for meditators to achieve the dhyanas (with which Gombrich disagrees). However, both agree that there are three major problems plaguing the sangha: nationalism, sexism, and a lack of education in critical thinking. These problems all contribute to a long-term malaise in Theravada-dominated countries: self-inflicted irrelevance.
Nationalism arose across Asia as one of the strongest ideological weapons against European imperialism in the previous three centuries. But this was a poisoned chalice, for defining a national identity against European colonizers required the exclusion of others that didn’t fit this identity. As a result, there are few sanghas in countries dominated by Theravada Buddhists that aren’t somehow involved in legitimizing nationalism and racism. The most prominent victims of these campaigns have been the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Muslim minorities of Thailand and Myanmar. Gombrich observes drily that many monks in Myanmar and Thailand distrust even each other, and do not accept the other’s lineage as being legitimate. Where the sangha is involved in violence, there will be a slow but sure decline in trust invested by laypeople, especially now that these local incidents are broadcast around the world via satellite and the Internet.
Gender discrimination is taken for granted in conservative sangha circles, particularly in Thailand, which has been the epicenter of several high-profile scandals and fissures between higher authorities and liberal-minded monks. Ajahn Brahm has been a prominent player in this debate: “Theravada needs more women to literally save its life. Some say that the Buddha warned his dispensation would be shortened to 500 years with women’s involvement [Cullavagga X]. I say that without women, Buddhism might not last more than 50,” he declares. But at least in Thailand, the problem is even more deeply rooted. The “institutionalized phobia of women” is extreme, Gombrich observes, as monks are forbidden to touch even female infants or animals, and cannot accept gifts from the hands of women. As more women demand participation and say in the Buddhist religion, these customs seem ever more outdated and in urgent need of a rethink.
The third factor, a lack of critical thinking, is fatal because it cripples the capacity to ask questions about the casual indulgence of nationalism and sexism, and the breaking of Vinaya rules. Traditionally the sangha has been the sole preserver of Buddhist knowledge, and therefore the source of authority and guidance. But it has lost this exclusive role of