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.