Healing the fallout from the Bhikkuni ordination

Here’s a new article from Dennis Sheppard, president of the BSWA, which he has asked me to post here.

Healing the fallout from the Bhikkuni ordination

Dennis Sheppard
President BSWA

Following the direction of the comments on my Presidential address to the BSWA’s March Annual General Meeting over the past month has been very interesting.

The depth and subtlety of the issues identified around the Bhikkuni ordination has been quite remarkable. It has been a pleasure to see these issues unpacked and deconstructed by the many very skilled and knowledgeable blogger’s.

There have been three main sites I have followed that include the BSWA’s own Community Chat Forum and our Dhamma TV site, but probably the site with the most interaction has been Ajahn Sujato’s blog space. (Many thanks to Ajahn Sujato for hosting such a free and open discussion.) I intend to post this response and plea on our own sites and I will ask Ajahn Sujato if he will post it on his as well.

My hope is that all the monks and lay communities that are involved, will see it, read it and allow harmony, friendship and peace to be restored.

One of the main themes that have emerged over the past month is the view that people have seen this trouble as being wider than the Bhikkuni ordination. The feeling is that Ajahn Brahm was out of favor with some of his colleagues before the ordination and the ordination was a catalyst to punish him, or perhaps bring him down a peg or two. In Australia we call it the “tall poppy syndrome”. This does seem to have validity as other monks from the same tradition have subsequently participated (at the same level as Ajahn Brahm) in Bhikkuni ordinations and virtually nothing has been said.

I have been aware of what I have always put down as a relatively friendly rivalry between the Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Sumedho method of teaching. The perennial question of whether absorption (jhana) or wisdom is the best approach in meditation. In Australia it is like the debate about whether a Holden car or a Ford is best. In the early days when A.B. was perfecting his practice I can imagine that there may have been some robust discussion amongst the different players to discuss which pathway was the best. A.S. was the established authority in the West at that time and I could well believe that A.B. may have come across as an upstart. Let me say that if that was how people did see him at the time, he is most definitely not that way now! I can attest that he is a very congruent, very sensitive, and a very wise monk. As for A.S, he was one of my first teachers. His clarity and wisdom takes my breath away. He is one of the finest monks on the planet.

The sad thing about today’s events is that it seems some of the perceived ill feeling is still being carried around by some of the monastic observers from that time. Further, it seems they may have infected some others who would not have known anything of what happened.

Having said that and having practiced with and knowing both of these great monks over many years, I am absolutely sure that neither of these two gentlemen carries any of this past stuff with them. They are both greats of the Theravadin tradition.

Given that everyone of us also aspire to peace clarity and stillness as a background to operate our lives from, it remains for the rest of us to examine ourselves, identify any blockages, beliefs or pain that we have created around this issue and move to a place where harmony and peace can prevail. This is my plea to all the monks and laity involved in commenting on or participating in the BSWA and AB lockout.

Please find a pathway through all of this mess to peace and harmony. Harmony must come first before we can expect peace to arise. As a very minimum, if you feel disaffected you must start talking to us. As I have said at the AGM it is no fun being sent to Coventry, and it paints a very poor picture of Buddha’s wonderful pathway. We must all practice to be good role models in the world to demonstrate the truth of the Buddha’s message; otherwise, what is the point?

I know there are many Western monks out side Thailand who wish for this unfortunate episode to be over — monks who would like to visit us and continue their friendship with AB. I am sure that there are also many Western monks in Thailand who would also like to remain friends with the BSWA. This whole issue needs to be raised to a level of maturity. It is unbecoming for us all to keep playing kindergarten politics.

We at BSWA do now understand that Bhikkunis’ in the Wat Pah Pong tradition will be a long way off. Having said that, we do not resile from our position with Bhikkuni’s. For all the reasons already outlined, they are now a permanent part of the BSWA. They are legal inside the Vinaya, they are a fact and we are overjoyed that they are now part of our landscape. We respect and honour WPP, but we do not wish to be reintegrated under the current circumstances.

Being affiliated with WPP would not fit with the BSWA’s constitution. This does not mean we do not want to be friends with you! Our roots are with WPP probably more deeply than many other branch monasteries. We all admire and respect the WPP tradition. Surely we can interact together in a friendly and harmonious way!

I respectfully ask the leadership of the Western WPP and the Thai WPP tradition to accept our overtures for harmony and peace so we can all live and learn together and propagate the Dhamma through this wonderful vehicle of Theravadin Buddhism.

Happiness – a new website

Here’s a new website called Action for Happiness, which was featured this morning on the Guardian. And here, while we’re at it, is another website, The Spirit Level, which points to the links between equality and happiness.

The Guardian has a famously cynical and fractious commenting community, and many of the responses to the Action for Happiness were (predictably) grumpy and negative. But there was a comment by Gordonbnt which made an excellent point. He starts by quoting the original article.

But the shocking fact is that, despite massive material progress, people in Britain are no happier than they were over five decades ago. Over that same period our society has become increasingly competitive and selfish, with a culture that encourages us to pursue wealth, appearance, status and possessions above all else. In the 1960s, 60% of adults in Britain said they believed “most people can be trusted”. Today the figure is around 30%. Our growing focus on self-centred materialism has also contributed to wider social problems. We’ve seen huge increases in anxiety and depression in young people, greater inequality, more family breakdown, longer working hours, growing environmental problems and crippling levels of debt.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. The good news is that by focusing our time and energy instead on things that have been shown to consistently bring happiness, we can live rich, rewarding lives.

Can you see the contradiction in this?

You say the problem is that materialism and selfishness and individualism destroy the potential happiness of lives; then why should we turn abandon this
– so that “WE can leave rich, rewarding lives.”

The logic of an individualistic pursuit of happiness is to be supplanted – not because its wrong, or that there might be a wider society outside where 30,000 people die, globally, of malnutrition everyday – but because WE can live even happier, “more rewarding” lives by “being less selfish.”

One logic, which is fundamentally based in greed hits an obstacle – of the non-delivery of happiness – which is to be supplanted by the pursuit of a “higher, Spiritual” happiness; but its the same basica avidity that wants the second thing.

Worth pondering on from a Buddhist perspective. We too often say that we should be ethical or loving or kind because it makes us happier. Perhaps more emphasis on the interconnected happiness of all would be a good thing…

Buddhist Festival Month in Sydney: can you help?

As Expo 2011 is rapidly approaching the Buddhist Council of NSW is calling for volunteers to help with security, guiding, logistics, general helpers…training provided!! If you are able to help NOW is the time to let the BCNSW know – Expo is the first two weekends in May. Please see the website for details. To register your interest, email contacts@buddhistfestivalmonth.org.au

If you are able to distribute flyers to your local community and contacts please contact the BCNSW with mailing address, preferred language (we have English, Chinese and Vietnamese) – the BCNSW will gratefully send bundles of 30 or 50 (or more).

Myth & truth

Following on from some comments earlier, it seems I need to expand what I said about myth and truth.

First up, see the definitions from Wiktionary:

Myth (plural myths)

  • A traditional story which embodies a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified; a sacred narrative regarding a god, a hero, the origin of the world or of a people, etc.
  • (uncountable) such stories as a genre

    Myth was the product of man’s emotion and imagination, acted upon by his surroundings. (E. Clodd, Myths & Dreams (1885), 7, cited after OED)

  • A commonly-held but false belief, a common misconception; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing; a popular conception about a real person or event which exaggerates or idealizes reality.
  • A person or thing held in excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration based on popular legend
    Father Flanagan was legendary, his institution an American myth. (Tucson (Arizona) Citizen, 20 September 1979, 5A/3, cited after OED)

Obviously I am using the word in the first sense, which has nothing to do with truth or falsity, but is about belief in a meaningful sacred narrative.

I am genuinely surprised that there is a difficulty in disentangling this meaning from the popular sense of myth (definition 3) as ‘thing thought to be true but in fact false’. This is quite a different thing and is not relevant for the serious study of sacred stories. Notice that this popular use is not just about story, but about any false belief, as we use in the sense of ‘urban legends and modern myths‘.

While these two meanings are distinct, they are historically related. As we study (genuine) myth, it becomes clear that many things in myth cannot be substantiated by facts, and that some things can be positively disproved. And yet this did not undermine the power that these myths had as sacred stories. So truth in any literal sense is not a necessary quality for a myth – a conclusion that is reinforced by the existence of thousands of mutually incompatible myths around the world. As this originally scholarly conclusion filtered through to the broader community, it inevitably lost its nuance and degenerated into the popular use we are familiar with today.

The problem is more acute for theistic religions. For example, Paul said that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is in vain. The myths must be literally true, or the foundations of the faith start to fall apart (This, of course, is the word of Paul, not Jesus!)

For Buddhists, the truth or otherwise of the mythology that surrounds the Buddha is, as several commenters have noted, not really the point. The four Noble Truths remain just as noble and just as true, whether or not this is sung by the devas as far as the Brahma world.

The study of mythology as such, therefore, does not concern itself with finding out whether a given story is ‘true’ or not. It inquires into the meaning and function of a story within its culture.

The job of a historian, however, is to sift the true from the false. To do so they will rely on corroboration of sources, prefer realistic rather than miraculous accounts, seek for any archaeological evidence, do text-critical studies, and so on.

One of the sources of help for a historian is the understanding of myth and its purposes. When you know what kinds of things myths typically do, it becomes possible, in some cases, to sniff out purely imaginary elements within histories.

This is what I did, for example, in Sects & Sectarianism. I treated the schism accounts of the foundation of the different schools as origin myths rather than historical accounts. But this was not done arbitrarily: it was done after considering all relevant information, and determining that the various accounts were all mutually incompatible. While it is possible that one of the accounts may be historical, the majority of them, perhaps all, must be inventions.

If one of the schism accounts is true, we had no way of knowing which one. Sometimes this can be done by comparing with additional information and determining which account best fits the overall historical picture. In this case, the historical basis is arrived at through the confirmation of certain accounts (the Sinhalese Vinaya commentaries) with the archaeological evidence. However, none of the accounts of schism fit the known history all that well (although one account, the Sariputrapariprccha, was the least bad).

Since most, probably all, of the accounts are inventions, we must then ask, ‘Why were these inventions made?’ The answer is fairly obvious: to authorize one’s school through establishing archaic authority for contemporary conditions. This is one of the basic functions of myth. Once this connection is made, it becomes clear that the accounts do not agree with the archaeologically-confirmed history, but they do agree very well with the particular mythos of each school.

We can then use the stories in a meaningful way, to contribute to our understanding of the schools that existed in Buddhism, and how they saw their place in Buddhism. As I pointed out in S&S, since most contemporary Buddhist scholars are dismissive of and hence unschooled in mythology, they tend to overlook these aspects.

Now, maybe the above reasoning turns out to be wrong. Maybe we find a new piece of evidence that shows that one of the schism accounts is in fact correct. In this case, a historian has to throw out their theory and rewrite the books – and in the process learn quite a bit about the First Noble Truth! But a mythologist would not be affected: the meaning and function of the story in its culture remain the same.

When we use this approach, it is not in order to throw things away because they are ‘myth’. It is to better understand things as they really are. We can use meaningful criteria to determine that some things in our Buddhist heritage are historical, and some things represent stories that the Buddhist community told about themselves. These are no less meaningful, but they speak of an inner truth rather than an objective truth.

Compare a modern day parallel, say a newspaper article and a fantasy novel. We can consider the newspaper article, ask whether it is true or not, compare it with known facts, and so on. We can’t do the same with a fantasy novel. Instead, we ask whether it was imaginative, fun, engaging, emotional. But the novel, for the very reason that it is dissociated from objective truth, reveals much more about the inner life of the novelist. The journalist is expected to conceal their own views as best they can and give an ‘objective’ account of the facts; while a novelist on the other hand is expected to be true to their own inner vision, and not let mundane reality weigh down their imagination. This is why novels and other imaginative works are often truer, more revealing and meaningful, than so-called ‘objective’ works.

Look around: in every culture these same forces are at play, jostling for attention; the inner and the outer, the freedom of imagination and the rigor of facts. Buddhist culture is no different.

As time goes on, however, our cultures become more specialized; the distinction between ‘myth’ and ‘history’ becomes sharper than ever before. This is why we’re having this conversation. It’s an essential process in the growth and adaptation of Buddhism.

And there are two tendencies that obstruct this process: the fundamentalist insistence that myth is history; and the secularist insistence that myth is useless. We don’t overcome these extremes by making rash sweeping judgments or defensive assertions. We do it by sympathetic inquiry and reflection.

A new theme…

I’ve updated the theme to use Punchcut – I hope you like it! I was motivated to change because I wanted something softer, and I noticed that the sites whose typography I admire used a screen-suited serif font, with lots of white space, generous line height, and set ragged-right (rather than justified: because browsers and other automatic systems don’t do a very good job of justifying text.)

Religious education – a new interfaith voice

A new group called the Religions, Ethics and Education Network of Australia (REENA) has emerged to promote a review of the way religion is taught in Australia. This relates to a number of previous posts I have made concerning the teaching of ethics and religion in schools. REENA’s Statement of Principles makes some excellent, and much-needed recommendations to address some of the problems with the current system. One of REENA’s guiding lights is Anna Halafoff of the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils.

On the 32 marks

This post is in response to James’ question about the notorious 32 Marks of a Great Man, especially as found in Digha Nikaya 30 Lakkhana Sutta. (James’ post referred to DN32, this is a mistake, also found in Wikipedia; I’ve corrected it there.)

D30 is clearly a late sutta. The verses prove this – they are in late metres, and the commentary says they were composed by Ananda – and even the prose sections have no Agama cognates.

The concept of the 32 marks, however, is widely found in the Suttas, although D30 is the only place that links the marks to specific kammas.

There is plenty of incidental detail in the Suttas and Vinaya that show that the Buddha was normal in appearance, so any freakish or supernatural interpretation of the marks must be wrong. Leaving a few of the bizarre elements aside, most of the marks are straightforward signs of physical beauty: black hair, white teeth, gold skin, and the like.

The Suttas themselves attribute the marks to ancient Brahmanical texts, although strangely enough they are not found in any extant Brahmanical works.

There is some suggestion that they may be Babylonian in origin: one of the early texts that features them (Parayanavagga) speaks of a Brahman called ‘Bavari’, which is just the Pali spelling of ‘Babylonian'; marks and omens of all kinds are rampant in Babylon and related cultures. In addition, the 32 marks are closely connected with the idea that the Buddha is a ‘Great man’, who has to choose between spiritual and royal dominion. This choice is first expressed in the myth of Gilgamesh, thousands of years before the Buddha, the most famous myth throughout the Babylonian region.

It is quite normal to have a child inspected for various auspicious marks, and so on, and so there is little reason to doubt that this happened to Siddhattha. It is also normal, indeed, essential, for the hero to fulfill ancient prophecies. While we can’t say what marks the Buddha actually had, we can be sure that if he did not fulfill an ancient prophecy, one would have been invented for him.

Myth evolves from facts plus imagination. When the baby Siddhattha was born, he would have been inspected, and since he was in fact healthy and physically excellent, he would have been pronounced as such by the soothsayers. It’s possible that other ‘auspicious’ events coincided with the birth – favorable stars or the like. As the child grew into a world-renowned spiritual teacher, the tales would have grown and been retold. They would have been shaped by, and in turn shaped, the prevailing mythos. The originally human details acquired a halo, polished and embellished by countless storytellers. When they have been sufficiently removed from their historical basis, they come to serve a universal, spiritual purpose – an expression of faith and awe; and in addition they can be leveraged for doctrinal purposes, as in D30.

What moderns fail to understand about myth – and I have spoken of this in Sects & Sectarianism – is that in the ancient world myth was widely accepted as an expression of universal truth. We are empiricists, at least in theory – we start with data and infer conclusions. But mythic truth tells of things that always have been and always will be. It is not subject to mundane inconveniences like facts. The mythos tells us that great spiritual beings have special physical signs that are an external manifestation of their inner perfection. Therefore, the Buddha must have had such marks. The only question would be the manner in which the marks were expressed, which would reflect the philosophy of those telling the story; hence the marks are interpreted as cosmic, not literal, in the Mahayana texts.

The compilers of the Buddhist texts sometimes invented passages to conform with prevailing patterns. We know this; there are explicit instructions in two Vinayas that the monks should do this, together with details as to how it should be done. So when we see a clearly mythic notion like the 32 marks, which contradicts the known facts that the Buddha had a normal physique, then we know it is an invention, whose basis is to be explained by the needs, wishes, and motivations of the redactors.

This does not mean that the marks should be dismissed: on the contrary it means that we have an invaluable method of understanding earlier generations of Buddhists, and how their beliefs influenced the form in which the Dhamma has been passed down to us. If we don’t understand those people, how can we hope to understand the texts that they formed as a vessel for the teaching of the Buddha?

We might scoff at the irrationality of the texts, but consider this: all ancient religious texts contain some material that we consider irrational. They survived against all odds, while countless other texts perished, because there was something in them that motivated people to devote incredible energy and dedication to their preservation. Would a purely rational, empirical Buddhism have survived? We have no examples to show that this is possible.

By all means, question the mythos: the insistence that myth is history is the seed of all fundamentalisms. But don’t throw them out: learn to understand myth as myth, and whole new vistas of meaning will open before you.