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. However, defining a ethno-national identity against European colonizers sometimes required the exclusion of others that didn’t fit this identity. Very few nation-states are completely free of ethnic or racial tensions, and this includes countries dominated by Theravada Buddhist sanghas. The most prominent cases involve 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 has been involved in violence, there has correspondingly been 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 preservation thanks to the democratizing powers of the Internet, universities, and private organizations digitizing the Buddhist texts for posterity. The sangha, as a whole, needs to reconfigure its relationship to wider society so that it can continue to be a relevant example and respected custodian of the Buddha’s teachings.
Thinking of solutions is not easy, but the spirit behind them is simple: the sangha needs to embrace opportunities to be more educated. It needs to come to terms with what contemporary people expect monks and nuns to be. “It is not bad karma to criticize monks, which for some reason is a common excuse to silence complaints,” says Ajahn Brahm. Criticism from laypeople has always kept the monks in check because if the monks continued to behave badly, the lay donors of the day—merchants, caravan traders, kings, housewives—simply withdrew their support. The Vinaya was created because of laypeople that complained about badly behaved monks.
To address the problem of sexism and institutional gynophobia, Ajahn Brahm suggests that monks start studying why Buddhist societies with a high ratio of female monastic participation are flourishing: Taiwan, for example. Furthermore, Thai monks should look to the nuns in northern Thailand for exemplary models of practice. Although excluded and discriminated against by the official Buddhist hierarchy, their communities revere them because of their simplicity and austere lifestyle. Their pure ideals, true to the Buddha’s original vision of the mendicant life, will eventually embarrass their critics into meeting their standards.
In terms of education, monastic institutions should isolate and identify virtues that teachers think novices should cultivate: open-mindedness, intellectual honesty, restraint, meditative calm—and structure the curriculum around the pursuit of those virtues. Gombrich suggests travel as a solution, although it is difficult to implement for all monks: “All monks should spend a year in a culturally different country with an institutionally different monastery,” he declares. These foreign exchanges mean radical exposure to different cultures and would open the worlds of young Theravada monks. Again, this is only a start, but more contact with people of other religions and life choices in safe, controlled environments might also give them a more international, cosmopolitan understanding of monastic identity.
The Theravada sangha is in crisis around the world, but from crisis comes opportunity. Regeneration and reformation are a continuous process: the sangha will never be completely pure, and problems will never be fully resolved. But this is not an excuse for not trying something. For the sake of public trust in the relevance of the most enduring institution in history, we must try something.
For more information, see:
Forest abbot warns Sangha reform ‘urgent’ (Bangkok Daily Post)