Projection

I’m struck, again and again, at the vast gap that exists between how the Sangha is seen and the reality of what it is. Not just the Sangha, but Buddhism in its historical manifestations is almost completely unknown, it seems, to almost all practising Buddhists. I see this gap in the claims that Theravada is the ‘pristine original teachings’; that there is one and only one way for Sangha to live; that Buddhism has never had any conflict until the Westerners started messing things up; and so on. Or, as I’ve banged on about repeatedly, the idea that bhikkhuni ordination could ever come about through a process of discussion and consensus.

Even a couple of hours with Wikipedia would dispel most of these fantasies. Wikipedia is, of course, by no means perfect. But having spent some time working on some of the historical articles there, the inaccuracies mostly come from well-meaning Buddhists with precisely the same kind of historical and reality disconnect, who blithely delete well-prepared and referenced articles or paragraphs from good scholars, only to replace them with naïve sectarian propaganda. Nevertheless, it remains a far more accurate and balanced source than almost anything you’ll find in a traditional Theravadin education curriculum.

Education is a big challenge, one which Theravada has, so far, failed dismally. Yet it is not the heart of the matter. We have the resources, if we wish, to prepare our Sangha and laity with a genuine, effective, education. There have been great strides especially in Taiwan and Korea in recent years, and there is no reason Thailand could not do the same.

The problem lies deeper. It goes to the heart of how the Sangha is imagined, desired in Theravada. We want our monks to be ignorant, inarticulate. We want them to repeat them same bland platitudes again and again. We loathe any deviation, any innovation, that might suggest that something new might be valuable.

As a monk, I am all too aware of how I offer a field for projection. Wrapped in our ochre robes, with shaven heads, we monastics deliberately strip ourselves of personal identity, the ‘signs of the household’ (gihivyanjana). We are removed, separated, distant, surrounded by layers of formalities, rituals, and taboos. For the Buddhist lay community we are the ‘other’, forever inaccessible. The things we surround ourselves with – robes, bowl, and the rest – retain little of their original functionality, and serve primarily as symbols that associate us with the lineage of the Buddha. We don’t just offer ourselves for projection, we positively invite, almost demand it.

Little wonder, then, that realistic understanding of the Sangha is so rare among the laity. In the past this would have been different. In traditional Buddhist culture, the monastery is part of the village. There it is, just over there. We’ve been going there since we were kids; we played in the yard, and watched the new hall being built. Our uncle is one of the monks, and our best friend ordained there for a month. We’ve seen the best and the worst that the Sangha has to offer, and we understand through experience how this melds with the life of the village.

Now, for the majority of urban Buddhists, contact with the Sangha is far less organic; just occasional ceremonies or teachings. When I was in Thailand some years ago there was yet another scandal in the Sangha, and my lay friend said passionately, ‘They don’t understand; these monks are human beings’. And that’s exactly it. We’re human beings first, and our lives do not depend on satisfying the fantasies of others.

The monks, however, know this and quite consciously play the game. They’re taught to be ‘nak sadaeng’, ‘showmen’. The robe has to be just so, the bowing, the chanting, the downcast eyes; all just so.

In essence, this is all normal stuff. There’s always a distinction between the inner and the outer. There’s no particular virtue in simply allowing one’s inner states to vomit forth on others; that’s, very largely, what culture is for. If I get angry with someone, I should still speak to them politely. The Buddhist idea is that one should be aware of this, and in the awareness comes integration.

But there comes a time when ‘differentiation’ or ‘distinction’ becomes extreme; that’s when we start to speak of ‘dissociation’ or ‘disjunct’. When someone’s inner and outer lives are well integrated, we speak of ‘authenticity’; when they are dissociated, we speak of ‘hypocrisy’.

One thing I’ve noticed about Asian culture is that there’s a strong awareness of the fact of playing the game. It’s all taken very seriously – the formalities, the ritual politenesses – but there’s also a realization that it is, in fact, just a game. One bows because it is the thing to do, not because the person one is bowing to is any better than you are. Westerners, for better or worse, struggle with this, and are reluctant to bow (or whatever) unless they are convinced that the object of their veneration is really worth it. This is not just a problem from the lay end, but an even bigger problem from the monastic end. Spiritual inflation is the eternal danger threatening Western monks: we just take the forms so literally.

So: lay Buddhists project their ideals on to the Sangha. The Sangha become, not struggling human beings in a complex and demanding role, but icons of purity and spiritual perfection. The Sangha play along with this, because it increases the faith of the lay community. Faith, in this sense, is complex notion, which slides all the way from ‘they’ll give us more good stuff’ to ‘they’ll be inspired to meditate seriously’. In some cases this game is a perfectly normal social game, which embodies in ritual play the spiritual role of the ordained Sangha within the fourfold assembly. In other cases the disjunct between inner and outer becomes so great that it is sheer hypocrisy and sham.

The projection also goes the other way. The monastics are probably somewhat less extreme in their projections, a little more cynical and realistic; they’ve been there. They have an understanding of lay life from the inside; and, in case they forget, there are plenty of lay people ready to share their woes and problems with a monastic compassionate enough to lend an ear.

Nevertheless, lay life is constructed as the ‘other’ from the monastic point of view, and this always invites projection. The central fantasy is, of course, sex. The lay life is seen as a struggle to survive that is primarily centred on the sexual drive. This is a key point. The Sangha valorizes celibacy to such a degree that no matter how decadent the Sangha becomes, how little practice there is, or how little understanding of the teachings, we remain, due to this one thing, on the higher spiritual plane. This is a very crude way of putting it, and I don’t mean to suggest that good monastics actually believe this consciously, or even unconsciously. Yet there is, to my mind, no doubt that this is a powerful force in the construction of the Sangha as a ritually sacred community.

It comes out, for example, in the lurid sexual fantasies about Western culture that have found their way into our blog comments. The West (in Asian imagination) is the great secular society, and hence the great paragon of sexual license. Of course, this has nothing to do with the facts; a global survey of prostitution, for example, shows that Western Europe typically has less sex workers than the rest of the world, and Sweden has swiftly brought down the numbers of prostitutes by making the purchase of services (usually by the male client) illegal, and the selling legal. I wonder what this would accomplish in Thailand, especially given the strong correlation between prostitution and spread of AIDS.

If the Sangha is the idealized projection in lay minds, then the laity are the debauched dark fantasy of the monks. This is, of course, a caricature; I’m just phrasing it as vividly as I can.

But this is not the only axis of projection. Anytime a person or group is conceived as ‘other’, we disidentify with them, see them as less human and more a foil for our own imagination. More typically, this happens across the sexes. Men and women look at each other with eyes that always seek something that is not there. This is the basis of romantic love; and just as surely, the basis for divorce.

This projection gets even more extreme when combined with the division into lay and monastic. The monks and lay women are, as it were, at a double remove, inviting twice the projection. The monks become the ideal of the spiritual masculine – sensitive, intelligent and strong – while the husband slouches in front of the footy with a beer in hand. And the monks get so used to looking ‘down’ on women – literally, from the spiritual heights of their Dhamma seats as the women bow to them – that it simply never crosses their minds that they might also see the feminine by looking across – or even up.

It’s a big problem. It won’t be solved in a day – probably not ever. But it’s not so hard for us to do something about it. To start with, reflect! Remind yourself that the person you deal with, whether monastic or lay, is a human being first of all, and inside is pretty much like the rest of us. Beware of the tendency to imagine special powers or qualities in another. Do some study; read up about Buddhist history and get an idea of how our spiritual teachings manifest in the ‘real world’. Talk about this with others, especially with others across the divide. Chat with your monastics; use subterfuge to get them in a situation where they are not on a high seat or in their ritually-protected safety zone, but can speak as equals. It’s always the hardest when the other is not there, as in the recent WAM, where the monks, yet again, discussed the fate and future of the nuns without any nuns present. Bring the other into presence, both physically and in imagination, and appreciate the connections and similarities, as well as the differences that make it interesting. Be honest, and stay real.

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52 thoughts on “Projection

  1. “It’s a big problem. It won’t be solved in a day – probably not ever. But it’s not so hard for us to do something about it. To start with, reflect! Remind yourself that the person you deal with, whether monastic or lay, is a human being first of all, and inside is pretty much like the rest of us. Beware of the tendency to imagine special powers or qualities in another. Do some study; read up about Buddhist history and get an idea of how our spiritual teachings manifest in the ‘real world’. Talk about this with others, especially with others across the divide. Chat with your monastics; use subterfuge to get them in a situation where they are not on a high seat or in their ritually-protected safety zone, but can speak as equals”

    Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu…

    Thank you Bhante for these words of advise.

  2. Well said Bhante!

    You have articulated the thoughts that I’ve been having for a number of years now (born of experience in & out of robes). Projection is a very subtle and pervasive thing, which most people find hard to acknowledge they are doing, or participating in gratuitously. Thanks for the lesson in mindfulness & reflection.

    It is interesting to study war propaganda in this light, especially in it’s stimulation and creation of fear, loathing and disgust, of one’s apparent enemy. Mara is a complex and devilish thing.

    It is also worth noting that one of the common ways of declaring arahant attainment was the absence of all mental concepts of “inferior”, “equal” and “superior” (with respect to a sense of self).

    Happy blogging, and please make sure you get enough rest!

  3. I have not looked at this blog before. These comments about projection and sexuality seem to be pretty broad generalizations mired in pop psychology. As in other spheres of human life, the real and the idealized roles are different. But my experience in the wat doesn’t make me feel that it is all a deluded, dysfunctional illusion. Quite the contrary, I see a lot of wholesome interaction and the monks I have spent time with seem to be pretty clear as to what they are doing in this Thai Theravada form.

    Ajahn Sugato seems to be pretty angry with the whole Thai Theravada monastic set up. I wonder if he has chosen the best vehicle for himself. Perhaps his unhappiness is coming from a realization that he has not chosen the correct path for himself.

    • Hi Ray and all,

      “But my experience in the wat doesn’t make me feel that it is all a deluded, dysfunctional illusion. Quite the contrary, I see a lot of wholesome interaction and the monks I have spent time with seem to be pretty clear as to what they are doing in this Thai Theravada form.”

      Absolutely! I think we all agree on this. If it weren’t for this, then none of us would be posting/commenting here in the first place.

      “Ajahn Sugato seems to be pretty angry with the whole Thai Theravada monastic set up. I wonder if he has chosen the best vehicle for himself. Perhaps his unhappiness is coming from a realization that he has not chosen the correct path for himself.”

      Perhaps. Perhaps not. It’s hard to know a person from afar. Those of us who live with Bhante Sujato know that, in person, he is incredibly gentle, warm and accommodating, especially to those who disagree with him. He shows a different face on this Blog, perhaps for a reason. But I would agree that Bhante Sujato can, at times, be angry at the “set up”. It means he’s not a non-returner or above. That’s ok, I think.

      What I worry about sometimes is the tendency of mind that says something like, “because this person is angry, upset, emotional, not smart, uninformed, black, white, yellow, female, male, a Muslim, a Christrian, a Mahayanan, etc s/he is not worth listening to”.

      This is the first time I’ve decided to be a part of a Blogging community. What I’ve learned is that when opinions are diverse, feeling born of contact with them is painful. I think that this is a physical reality that may apply equally even to arahants.

      So I’d like to express my thanks to Bhante Sujato and every person who contributes to this blog, because I know that reading and writing here does not come without pain. I feel strongly, that the effort that goes into this communication is worth it.

      >j<

    • Thanks for responding. I can understand that just because someone is angry, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t he listened to. But usually the teachings at the wat teach us aspire to be cool, clear, and calm.

      Perhaps this way of writing is just the culture of the internet.

      However, it is jolting to see the level of emotion in this blog.

      Does anyone else notice the tone or is it just me?

      I also question the tone of Thanissaro’s facebook.

    • I don’t see any anger in Sujato’s post, just matter-of-factness. On the other hand, I find much communication in “spiritual” circles is sugar-coated, indirect, appeasing and approval-seeking in tone, while managing at the same time to be concescending, didactic and often manipulative. (For the avoidance of doubt, Ray, that is not how I find your communication, which seems as direct as Sujato’s). I find the direct style a refreshing relief.

    • Hi Ray.

      I don’t think Venerable Sujato is angry at all. Guessing at emotional undertones over the internet is a fickle game at the best of times.

    • Well, you guys could have asked me! Yes, I get angry when I see how this beautiful Dhamma is distorted to become something so ugly. I deal, and move on. Like many men, i don’t feel so comfortable talking about my emotions in public, and, also like many men, I sometimes say things that are maybe too blunt and aggressive. So shoot me. But then look at the real issues – they don’t just go away.

      We’re human beings; we have spiritual needs; The Buddha’s Dhamma addresses those needs in a uniquely profound and relevant way; modern Buddhism contains a mix of valuable Dhamma heritage and harmful distortions; if we want to create a meaningful spiritual life for ourselves, we need to understand these, deconstruct them, and not be afraid to make the changes that are needed.

    • Hi Ray,

      thanks for the comments. Just a couple of points: in this blog I am (finally) able to say in a simple and direct way what I have been struggling with for many years, speaking about with my friends, and engaged in long, complex, scholarly pursuits. So it’s refreshing for me to just state my views, without worrying about too much nuance, evidence, and so on. As such, it’s just a view, and for you and others to reflect on.

      I first became alerted to the importance of this issue about 8 years ago, when I spent some time with a senior teaching monk (not WPP tradition) who was on the verge of disrobing. He spoke deeply about the pressure of the weight of projection that he felt upon him, and this was the primary reason for his disrobal. Since then, I have looked at and reflected on this issue in many different ways, by internally, and through observation.

      My feeling is that the levels of disjunction in the mainstream Thai Sangha are catastrophic. I was told, for example, by one ex-monk friend in Thailand that in his opinion, 70% of Thai monks have no sila at all, and would just do whatever they want. he looked at me straight in the eye and repeated carefully: ‘Anything at all.’ Another example: a Thai monk was staying as a guest in the BSWA for a while; he was found with, among other things, photos of him having dinner with his Japanese girlfriends, with beer on the table, and love letters saying how cute he was and what a great cook. He complained when he was kicked out, as he said, quite rightly, ‘Most Thai monks are like me’. When he got back to Thailand and the matter was raised with his teacher there, it was ignored, of course. These are not isolated examples, but are, in fact, pretty mild. In mainstream Thai Buddhism there is an almost complete insulation between the Buddhadhamma and the reality of lived monastic life, and I do think this is a largely dysfunctional situation.

      As, presumably, a Westerner, i would guess that you are unlikely to have come into serious contact with such mainstream Thai Buddhism – please correct me if i’m wrong. We almost always see just the elite, the best of the best, and there the situation is very different. I am mainly familiar with the forest tradition of the North-east, and the monks there are generally well-behaved, meditate, keep good sila, and very often are personally very impressive. I stayed there for many years and thoroughly enjoyed my time. Nevertheless, the issues of projection, ego-inflation and so on, are still pertinent. In good monastic environments, these are the things that need to be dealt with, and they affect individuals in quite different ways. Attachment to one’s tradition, for example, leads in some cases to a strongly sectarian strand in the Western WPP tradition, which i only became conscious of as I explored outside.

      There is an awareness of these issues, but in my experience they are not discussed openly or taken seriously. After I began to become aware of the significance of these problems, since i had not found very helpful discussions in the Buddhist literature, i found this intersected with some of my readings in psychology. Actually, this was a by-product of my studies of Buddhist mythology. In understanding the nature of projection, I have found the most helpful writer for me to be Erich Neumann, especially his The Origins and History of Consciousness. He specifically emphasizes the role of women in the male psyche, and has some very interesting remarks on this in the context of the ascetic life.

      I hope this gives some context to my little article.

    • Thanks. I will think about all this.

      Correction: My wife says that I got it completely wrong when I complained about the tone of Thanissaro’s Facebook. I was actually looking over her shoulder at the Women Sangha Facebook and had Thanissaro and Thanissara confused as well. Anyway, I was taken aback by Thannissara’s tone and that has what has got me into this blog. I normally don’t do this.

  4. A good way to understand projection:

    Imagine for a moment a tree in your mind. Picture it in vivid detail. Then go outside and find that tree. That exact tree.

    Now understand that you’ve been doing the same thing with people all your life.

  5. It’s not clear from Venerable Sujato’s post that the monastic Sangha is supposed to be expected to hold itself to any higher a standard of conduct than the lay community. This is clearly not the case, as can be seen in many suttas where the Buddha chastises the Sangha precisely FOR behaving like lay people.

    There is an important accountability dynamic between the lay and monastic communities that is much stronger in western monasteries than in eastern ones. The monks are expected hold a certain standard of virtue and discipline, that, if they are lax about, will result in diminishing support from the community. I’ve seen it in my own local Vihara. Many people leave simply because the monks consistently break with vinaya, and it is disheartening to the followers. As a result, the vihara is now struggling with its mortgage.

    It’s true the the lay community has a tendency to hold up an unrealistic ideal for the monks to follow, but that is not always a bad thing. Even if a very few monks in the world can live up to that ideal, even if it’s just one, even if it’s just the Buddha, it’s no reason to lower the bar and not shoot for it.

    • Dear James,

      Yes of course ideally the Sangha should uphold a higher standard of ethics than the laity. Unfortunately in practice this means that the Sangha is judged by things like, say, not eating after noon, or using a receiving cloth, or the way you wear your robes, which are visible signs of tradition, but which are not things that directly harm anyone. In matters of importance, however, the lay community often adheres to higher standards of ethics than the Sangha, the most obvious example being the treatment of women, which would not be tolerated in any secular environment. I have long argued that in this situation it is impossible for the Sangha to play its traditional role as ethical exemplars.

  6. thank you, venerable sujato, for the fearless endeavor that you are initiating. your writings are an inspiration as well as stabilizing an evolutionary impulse needed as we move forward.

  7. Sawadee to All Who Have A Little Dust In Their Eyes.

    Last week, I came across Ajahn Sucitto’s article that was posted on the Buddhistchannel web site. It is a very good one. It gives some good history as to the intention and effort that was behind creating the Siladhara Order.

    Here is the link to this article in case if you are interested:

    http://www.buddhachannel.tv/portail/spip.php?article10061

    “…there is the ongoing dilemma of being a 20th century westerner (and ex-hippy to boot) with the cultural attitude of male-female parity, yet committed to a Buddhist lineage that has non-parity at the roots of its conventional structures. I have no doubt been less than perfect under the stress of all these conflicts, but it has left me with no solid ground. And for that I am grateful.”

    I think that if this is the only thing I would have learned from being a Buddhist in Theravada Buddhism, then it is good enough.

    Personally, this ending of his article has touched me very deeply. Let us all stay humble and be on no solid ground as this process unfolds.

    How about joining me for devoting one week of our meditation sessions on the caution implicit at the ending of A. Sucitto article?.

    I think I might learn a lot from it.

  8. Sadhu X 3, Bhante Sujato. So well said and ‘hitting the nail on its head”

    This is where cultural trappings and nationalistic egoism loom high with many of the different schools and lineages of ethnic Buddhism, both Theravada and Mahayana. Only with the openness and freedom of expression in Western societies can the “NAKED” Buddha be presented and allow followers of this great Teacher to really learn and understand His Noble teachings, stripped off much of the “games”, “shows” and fantasies.

    • Hi TS-Teck Suan,

      I fully agree with you!

      I was born in a traditional Theravada country but only CHOSE to be Buddhist after finding it in a Western Context. Why? Because it helped me in my life. As opposed to being a part of a culture that I simply socialised within.

      Not that I don’t socialise a bit within this new western buddhist culture I find myslef in…tis nice to have like minded friends.

      I have to say also that I love some of the traditions and rituals. Some of them are very meaningful to me and thus are useful in my practise.

      I think I remember a monk suggesting once that we should bow if we felt that was appropriate. I’ve taken to doing that sometimes…if my heart feels a need to bow…then I do so. If I feel I’m just having a casual conversation with a monastic…say we are both standing or we are both sitting on chairs…I may just put my hands in Anjali, if that.

    • Hi Kanchana,

      I am like you, very concerned with my the spiritual life of children and grandchildren in Australia. They are turned off by the ethnic temples here with the rituals, blind faith and unquestionable subservience to the monks. They could make no sense of their practices so they turned away. My hope for them pin on the Western Sanghas and monasteries here in Australia to deliver to them the profound teaching of the Buddha and how they can help shape their lives.

  9. Hey Folks,

    No more arguments on Bhikkhunis ordination, please!

    Lord Buddha had said it very clearly, in the Suttas:

    1. “Do not ask for going forth, Gotami” 3 times firmly.

    2. Buddha said 4-fold assembly and NOT 4-fold Sangha.

    So, Buddha only recognized and approved one Sangha with Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis (8 rules applied perpetually),lay men & lay women – perfect combination.

    The word is “assembly” and not “Sangha’.

    No more dispute, People. All can get back to normal life and enjoy your X’mas & New Year.
    Rejoice, rejoice,rejoice. Ho, ho, ho.

    • Yes we all should rejoice in the ordination of bhikkhunis whether they be from the Theravada, Mahanaya or some other lineage. I do, don’t you Santa Claus? And it’s so wonderful that all bhikkhunis of whatever school of Buddhism have to observe more precepts than bhikkhus. Long live the bhikkhuni order for the welfare and happiness of all sentient beings.

  10. Dear Ven Sir,

    I thought Buddha taught us to be in the Present,
    and not in the future or to Project or Reflect.
    Quite contradicting.

    Becoming deluded again.

    • He did (teach us to be in the present and not project). Sujato is saying that we don’t always do so. Sujato is not suggesting that we project but that we stop it.

  11. Dear Bhante Sujato

    Your posts are candid and incisive, the product of an inquiring mind with social justice, fairness and equality foremost. They are also refreshing and food for thought. Recent posts show that you are not afraid to mention topics considered taboo or not worth bothering about by the sangha such as sexism, androcentrism and misogyny.

    If you were in politics you would be a progressive liberal and a social activist. These are the kind of people and qualities I admire and try to live up to.

    Changing entrenched views against bhikkhuni ordination is probably more difficult than raising the Titanic but we must persevere. To deny full ordination to women is the easy and lazy way out but it only diminishes the fourfold assembly that Buddha established.

    You are one of the few voices of conscience in the Buddhist world but having chosen it you know that the road is rocky and there will be a lot of detractors. I hope that you will never give up. Best wishes.

  12. Dear Bhante,

    It seems from the discussion that in this post you are mainly explaining what you have observed in Asian Buddhist culture, but sometimes you also make reference to the Western context. Insofar as your remarks are intended to apply to the situation here in Australia, I think you might be underestimating the level of sound judgment that informs the appreciation monastics receive from the lay community. There are no doubt some people who see monks, or want to see them, as “icons of purity and spiritual perfection” or “the ideal of the spiritual masculine” but I think the majority of Australians start with a much less elevated image of monks, at least the Western ones. If we do develop admiration for monastics, that’s not due to any fantasy projections, but rather to positive experiences with particular monks and nuns.

    You describe monks as “cynical and realistic” – well, that applies to a lot of Aussies as well. I’d say that the majority of us who have come to see monastics as special people, worth supporting, have had that cynicism overcome by the real and occasionally extraordinary qualities displayed by the monks and nuns (and aspiring nuns) we meet. When there is projection going on, this is not always delusional, in the sense of believing that monastics are more perfect than they really are. The projections may be into the future – involving an appreciation of the great potential in a monastic community that is still young and growing, that has its human flaws and weaknesses, sure, but also has an aspiration to reach beyond them and needs the encouragement and support of the lay community to help it do so.

    • Dear Juzzeau,
      Your words here are heartening and grounded and remind me of my optimism. A good help ! Thank You.

    • Dear Justine,

      Thanks for the remarks, and yes, i think you are right – this is one reason i like living in Australia. As a monk, i still encounter the pious deference of traditional Buddhism, and this is salted with the brisk egalitarianism of many Ozzies, so it’s a fun mix. Actually, the problems of projection and so on, of course, vary from place to place, and there are always examples of healthy interaction. Jack’s experience at a monastery in Sri lanka has, for him, been better than elsewhere; although, as usual, his experience is based on a limited time at an elite meditation monastery, so is not really representative.

      There is, i think, a ‘new Buddhist’ tendency to idealize monastics. I think this comes from a lack of ground-level interaction with the noramlcy of Sangha life, together with the residue of the whole ‘mystical east’ thing. The tendency is, no doubt, counterbalanced by Ozzie iconoclasticism (is that a word?), but I still see it sometimes.

      There was an excellent talk on this topic by Diana Taylor (Tenzin Chonyi) at the ASA conference a couple of years ago. She was mainly talking from her experience with western Tibetan monastics. For monastics, of course, the problem is compounded, for not only do we have to deal with the projections of others, but more importantly with our own projections. We idealize our teachers, have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, try to be perfect… I recommend the discerning cultivation of vice to overcome this problem. A few peccadillos, like strong coffee – as a completely random example – help to keep things just that little bit real.

    • I’m sorry Bhante, let me clear up a couple of misconceptions. I have not actually been to Sri Lanka (yet), I just attended a retreat that Venerable Dhammajiva Thero conducted here in NZ, the retreat itself was conducted in Sinhala, as everyone present except myself spoke that language as their mother-tongue.

      Indeed that is not representative by any stretch of the imagination.

      My experience with the Thai style of things is very limited also – A month at a western branch monastery of the Ajahn Chah lineage.

      Most of my opinions and views are majorly based on extrapolations, conversations with friends and readings of this and that.

      With regards to not thinking ‘a monk would respond’ perhaps this requires further explanation.

      It’s not necessarily that I have found that because Venerable X is a monk, he will not respond to a question. Not at all.

      More so that because Venerable X gets a lot of questions, only has a limited time set a side to read such questions and comments, and may have more pressing comments to answer, my comment is quite liable to get lost under the stack that is constantly mounting up.

      metta
      Jack

    • Ah ha. I see that you’ve rediscovered the almost forgotten technique of kilesa bhavana.

      Not sure about using coffee as an object though – I’ve always been taught that it is one of the five basic food groups: fat, protein, carbohydrate, chocolate and coffee.

    • I don’t know about rediscovered: the Dalai Lama, for example, frequently mentions how he doesn’t strictly keep the rule about not eating in the afternoon, as he has a few cookies. A not-so-subtle dig at the more widespread Tibetan practice of simply ignoring this rule, no doubt; but also a reminder of his humanity.

  13. sujato :
    Well, you guys could have asked me!

    To be honest Bhante, I didn’t consider the possibility that you might respond (please don’t take it personally, it’s just my experience when talking to Monks)

    The hardest thing to wrestle with, coming from an extremely egalitarian society (NZ) is the Thai and Burmese culture, which have successfully removed the Samana monkhood from a position in society quite excluded from the hierarchy. Instead replacing them at the top of the ladder, where the Brahmin caste of old used to sit. Which means that as a lay person, you should always show extreme deference to anyone wearing the robes – Instead of checking them out, asking them how many precepts they’re holding to, whether they meditate, observing their actions through seeing and listening, before finally placing faith in them as someone worthy of veneration.

    This is what draws me to Sri Lanka is the more egalitarian culture they have there. Recently I was able to attend a retreat led by the Venerable Dhammajiva Thero, who is the head meditation teacher at Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya. What really inspired me was the dialogue between the Sinhalese laity, and the Venerable Sir. What was absent from the laity’s body language and the way they spoke was the extreme deference I have witnessed in Thai culture. That’s not to say there wasn’t acts of veneration, there were plenty, I took part in them myself – But more to the point, this veneration didn’t take center stage, it wasn’t the central feature of the dialog. When it happened, this veneration was built on saddha

    Some people translate saddha as ‘faith’ but I think a better translation is ‘confidence’ that’s what I saw and felt myself – Confidence. Which is a stark contrast for me from what I’ve seen in Thai Buddhism, there was no ‘game’ to play here, just Dhamma.

  14. Ray Peterson :
    Thanks for responding. I can understand that just because someone is angry, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t he listened to. But usually the teachings at the wat teach us aspire to be cool, clear, and calm.
    Perhaps this way of writing is just the culture of the internet.
    However, it is jolting to see the level of emotion in this blog.
    Does anyone else notice the tone or is it just me?
    I also question the tone of Thanissaro’s facebook.

    Hi again Ray.

    Yeps, for me, the level of emotion is jolting. I haven’t seen Thanissara’s Facebook thingy since it first started so I can’t comment on that.

    While being cool, clear and calm are the goals of Buddhism (I always remember the Kakacupama Sutta in this regard) it is, I think, important to not mistake the goal for the path.

    When we make this conflation, we end up pretending to be something that we are not. I don’t mean to say that we, as practitioners, monastic or lay, should not strive to reach the goal; rather that we should make efforts to be honest, accepting and forgiving of ourselves and others as we go through that very difficult process of getting there. Bhante has brought up a lot of very raw issues, so it will take some time for us all to to digest what is happening and settle down on this Blog. But already, I can see things are changing for the better. We are striving, and we are improving in our Right Speech.

    Right speech is often equated with Noble Silence. I think this raises the difference between restraint and denial. So often we find ourselves reluctant to speak clearly and openly because we prefer to be in silence. That is to say, we prefer to be in denial, not so much about the issues – and I depart from Bhante on this point – but, more centrally, the psychological and physical pain that arises together with contact with the issues.

    This is the root, and if we cannot help the Walters address this, then they will simply be physically and psychologically incapable of engaging with the issues appropriately. Practically speaking, if we are to shift the Walters, I think we need to go, not beyond words, but what comes before words. We need to come to terms with how the Walters may be deeply emotionally incomplete, see the deep suffering in this, and be gentle.

    Of course, this Blog can never do that because it is naught but words. So it would be unreasonable to expect it to. This Blog most usefully serves those who already have the modicum of emotional maturity necessary to engage in discussion about difficult issues. Having said that, we’re all just happen to be where we happen to be, and everyone should be allowed to have a voice even if they’re not quite where we would personally prefer them to be (unless their words are pure invective). So even if every single blogger and commentator were to make a firm commitment to perfecting their Right Speech, it is a long process. And besides, there will always be newcomers.

    But I digress. What I originally wanted to say was that we end up, so easily as Buddhists, justifying denial by citing the teaching of restraint. Whereas, restraint when practised properly has the opposite psychological effect to denial. Restraint is a practice that transfers our attention from delight in our habits to noticing to what is actual happening inside and outside of us. Restraint gives us the mind/heart-space to notice to what actions really do lead to suffering – and how refreshing it can be to see this! Restraint makes us more sensitive, not less.

    At the other end of the spectrum we also often see the situation where practitioners get tired of the teaching of restraint because, actually, they’re just sick and tired of the denial, the sugar-coatedness, the passive-aggression, the manipulation, the political-correctness, the approval-seeking etc. So sometimes we go too far and mistakenly abandon restraint altogether. Of course, as humans struggling to do as the Buddha taught us, sometimes we need safety valves. We should not give up the goal in our efforts to acknowledgement of the realities of the path.

    Sometimes I feel uninspired and quite upset when I see practitioners, particularly monastics, behave in such a way that leaves me with the impression that they either do not believe in the goal or have given up on it.

    >j<

  15. Sujato,

    I just found this blog and am quite excited to digest your post more fully. It is encouraging to find monastics willing to expound in a straightfoward manner on the Dharma through this outlet. Especially since my understanding of the Dharma is just now beginning to develop.

    Looking forward to more posts.

    Cheers,

    John

  16. Anagarika Jason Chan said above ” While being cool, clear and calm are the goals of Buddhism (I always remember the Kakacupama Sutta in this regard) it is, I think, important to not mistake the goal for the path.

    When we make this conflation, we end up pretending to be something that we are not. I don’t mean to say that we, as practitioners, monastic or lay, should not strive to reach the goal; rather that we should make efforts to be honest, accepting and forgiving of ourselves and others as we go through that very difficult process of getting there. ”

    I feel these are such noble wise words.I can really relate to that trap of ‘appearing’ to be something, becasue i wish it was that way, versus actually knowing and accepting and then working with the mind as it is….however ‘unenlightened’ and scary the mind may seem and we wish it was otherwise – it is best to just get to know it and bring compassion and wisdom. We can then actually realise the inherent light, rather than just imagine and wish and pretend light.!

    Thank you

  17. Dear Ajahn Sugato, thankyou for you honest exposition of the reality of the sangha, the monks and may I add, the nuns. For they also have projections layed upon them. Whether one of indfifference, contempt, scrutinised, or with a look of dismissal, nuns need to deal with being invisible to the majority of lay. It seems that even though they have also shaved their heads and doned the robes, to dientangle from any sexuality, the premise of being a female seems to remain.

  18. TS-Teck Suan :Hi Kanchana,
    I am like you, very concerned with my the spiritual life of children and grandchildren in Australia. They are turned off by the ethnic temples here with the rituals, blind faith and unquestionable subservience to the monks. They could make no sense of their practices so they turned away. My hope for them pin on the Western Sanghas and monasteries here in Australia to deliver to them the profound teaching of the Buddha and how they can help shape their lives.

    Hi again,

    You have reminded me of something Ajahn Brahm once said… To paraphrase him: the best way to give your children a hope of a spiritual life is to encourage them to question and to seek the truth with honesty.

    My parents intially took me along to the temple as a teenager but what I heard and saw made so much sense that I was soon going along even when they didn’t!

    I think though that our kamma has a lot to do with it too… In the end we cannot control our children’s fate… There are too many factors involved… We can only do what we can and then be like Ajahn Brahm’s father was to him; always have the doors of hearts and homes open to them, no matter what they do.

    All the best :)

  19. sujato :
    Well, you guys could have asked me

    Dear Sujato

    I never replied to this.

    I could have asked but I wasn’t actually bothered whether you were angry or not, I was focussed on the message in the words. Anyway, it’s almost impossible to judge emotions and moods over the internet unless someone uses an emoticon or says directly “I’m angry, sad” or whatever. And often the emotion is not the point, it’s what someone is trying to say, so sometimes it’s best to just to put up your brolly and let it blow over. Focussing on someone’s emotions when they’re not the point can actually stifle what they are trying to communicate. (So can ignoring them, but that’s another story!)

    Anyway, what actually happened on reading your post was that I burst into tears. Your post addressed and articulated concerns and perceptions that I have had for many years about monastics, laity and their mutual projections. When I have raised these questions in various sanghas over the years, I have usually been met with a (mostly well-meaning) wall of monastic-speak and lay dharmababble, and it’s usually been made to seem like it’s my defilements or my “equality complex” that’s making me see these apparent problems that really don’t exist. (Not that I don’t have an equality complex, and an inferiority one and a superiority one too. I just don’t think they were the right diagnosis.) I have never felt that my concerns and questions have been heard, much less taken seriously and responded to. I hadn’t realised how upset I was until your post addressed these concerns and it all came out.

    So why was I so upset? Well, while these mutual projections went unacknowledged and therefore unexamined, I found it almost impossible for both laity and monastics to really fulfil their functions in the dharma community except in a mostly ritualised kind of way. That’s not to say that there was no real “dharma life” going on – it was just difficult for it to flourish beyond a kind of “elementary” level with all of this misperception and pretending going on – almost like everybody was acting to a script. Yet I couldn’t give up on the dharma … yet I couldn’t see how it could flourish.

    As far as I can see it is only when we acknowledge, live with, investigate, work through, go round, take seriously, laugh at or do whatever else we need to do with these projections that the fourfold community can really have a full “dharma life”. But if we pretend they’re not there “they” will “run things”. Your post was the first time that I had seen these things acknowledged by someone who is in a position to make an actual difference to the way that things are done. I realised that I wasn’t actually nuts for seeing these things, and I wasn’t nuts to want to address them, lowly layperson though I have been made to feel. Your post gave me faith again that the living dharma can actually live and not just be an ideal. I hadn’t fully realised how much I’d lost faith and was really just putting up with things.

    I really do deeply thank you. If I ever meet you I will bow to you.

    (Oh dear, I’m crying again).

    David

    • So I was crying because I was happy which suddenly struck me as ridiculous so I burst out laughing and couldn’t stop.

      I hope we meet too.

    • David, your candid, honest post addresses many important points — thanks for bringing these questions to the fore.

      Barnabas.

  20. Thank you for saying it, Bhante. Sometimes I just want to get the traditionalists by the shoulders and give them a little shake and say “open your eyes!”

    Affirming how one thinks the Sangha ‘should’ ideally be is not describing how it actually is; it’s a case of comparing logical apples and oranges.

    Even tho I’ve lived with several of them, it still surprises me HOW MUCH the Western Ajahns are capable of answering about how the Sangha operates based on interpretations of ideal models rather than describing what actually usually happens in reality, and somehow still feel that they are not intentionally misrepresenting the truth.

    I’m sure they do sincerely feel that they are not intentionally misrepresenting the truth, but after all these years I still just don’t get how they manage it.

    Men and women look at each other with eyes that always seek something that is not there. This is the basis of romantic love; and just as surely, the basis for divorce.

    I don’t believe that’s actually true. It is tricky to clarify exactly why the Buddha considered celibacy such an important part of the path of liberation when one is so close to the issue, because to understand requires sympathy and to sympathise with the roots of sexual desire is dangerous when you’re trying to avoid dwelling on them.

    I think I only understood why celibacy was so important when I had just about given up on it, and then did actually give up and disrobe (so I’m not recommending my route!), but I felt like I understood more clearly than in almost all my time as a monk why celibacy was really valuable.

    I still believe it’s valuable, but I also don’t believe ‘sexual love’ is an oxymoron anymore, and I don’t believe in the whole black and white, impractically oversimplistic, ethical dichotomy.

    One of the things that actually tipped me over the edge was that I found I didn’t have any confidence in the ajahns’ views of why celibacy was really so crucially valuable -I believed it was, even tho I was about to give it up, but I didn’t have confidence that I’d get the moral support I would have needed because -arrogant as this may seem to admit publically now- I felt like none of the ajahns’ even really knew why they were doing it, not well enough to encourage me anyway.

    Kama does involve an illusion, but I believe it’s much deeper than the one you mention and also a functional illusion up to a point. And it’s not as easy as just dealing with physical attraction by seeing thru subhavipallasasannya, because the emotional side of sexual craving is much harder to overcome, goes much deeper, subtler and close to the root of being. I felt like I could see the problem more clearly than ever before, but also saw I clearly didn’t have the inner strength to deal with it, without going back a few steps first. Hence the trousers!

    Perhaps one day we should have a chat about it all. I’ll be in Oslo soon and if all goes to plan hopefully I’ll end up settling there, so maybe if you’re over for one of the Buddhist Studies conferences there I can make you a rocket fuel strength cup of coffee the way you like it and catch up and maybe even make peace! I’ve changed so much I think you’d hardly recognise me in many ways, for the better I feel, but all very un-monklike. I sense you’ve changed quite a lot too, also for the better it seems to me.

    • Hi Kester,

      I’d love to catch up; and I really appreciate your reflections here. I hope Oslo goes well; you can join the Uttarapathakas. I’ve no travel plans for the time being, but who knows?

  21. My main man (oops, monk) Sujato

    Really, really appreciate your realism.
    Yes, “discerning cultivation of vice” is a handy tool. Funny the things people get obsessed about ‘giving up’ in order to ‘purify’ themselves ay bro?

    I have been married to a Thai lady for 28 years, lived in Thailand for the past 20 years, and have been practicing for around 25 years.

    The rose-coloured specs were removed a long time ago.

    The stench of mankind is oh so apparent at the majority of Thai Wats and I’ve detected the odour at ‘Meditation Centers” also.

    Re: Celibacy. Really it’s not such a big deal. And as the aging process continues, for me at least, the decay of the prostate has lead naturally toward celibacy. (I got plenty when I was young).

    Keep blogging Ajahn, your perspective is indeed refreshing to hear.

    Barry Hoben
    Pattaya
    Thailand

    ??? Yeah, a celibate layman in Pattaya. Outrageous!! LOL

  22. Thank you very much Sujato for an insightful and honest post — you have made an important contribution to the debate, and raised some vital points. Much advice for many of us to look in the mirror.

    Have you read the Israeli American scholar Melford Spiro on the subject of narcissism in the Sangha?

    Here is his observation on narcissism and vanity as a primary motivation for those choosing to ordain in the Theravada Sangha.

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?cd=1&hl=ko&id=x3k3Sr56lIQC&dq=melford+spiro&q=repression#v=snippet&q=narcissism&f=false

  23. (These quotes were posted by fellow boarder Joe earlier on another page, but I couldn’t find his quote, so I re-posted the Spiro pages. I think it’s important reading.)

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