The Australian Federal Government is revising its statutory definition of a charity. Given that most Bddhist organizations operate as charities, this is of concern for the Buddhist community, and the Govt has asked the FABC to offer advice. The webpage is here for anyone who’s interested. It is essential that any new definition should include Buddhism as a charity, as it provides abundant public benefits. In the past there has been some discussion as to whether Buddhism qualifies as a “religion” under Australian law. This is another matter that should be clarified.
It’s now a year and a half since Ajahn Brahm and Bodhinyana monastery were excommunicated from their monastic circle, Wat Pa Pong, for disobeying orders by ordaining women in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.
Has anything got better?
Short answer: not so you’d notice.
Ajahn Brahm has been in discussions with some of the WPP Ajahns overseas, trying to arrange a forgiveness ceremony, to let go and move ahead. He is clear that neither he nor his Sangha are interested to rejoin Wat Pa Pong. They do, however, want WPP to stop the active campaign of cutting Ajahn Brahm and his monks out of communion, requiring that Ajahn Brahm’s monks effectively disown him as a teacher if they stay in a WPP monastery, and so on. After several discussions where such a move seemed hopeful, suddenly the word came from the WPP Ajahns: ‘It’s not time yet’.
I wasn’t aware there was a right time for forgiveness.
Having just spent a few weeks in Bodhinyana, when these issues were discussed regularly, I can confirm that there is a lot of pain and disappointment at WPP’s actions among both the lay and ordained communities. In speaking with Ajahn Brahm, however, I never heard him do anything other than seek for a way to resolve the conflict. There was no criticism, no sign of ill-will, only the question: ‘How do we get over this?’
Meanwhile, a serious situation of conflict at the branch monastery in Wellington, New Zealand has arisen. A little background is in order. The monastery was established around the same time as Bodhinyana in Perth, and by coincidence they chose a similar name, Bodhinyanarama (after Ajahn Chah’s Pali name). Bodhinyana was established by inviting monks from Thailand. However, Bodhinyanarama was established with monks from England, and hence they have always been part of the ‘Amaravati circle’. Like Bodhinyana, however, Bodhinyanarama was set up by a pre-existing Buddhist society operating as a charitable association, the Wellington Theravada Buddhist Association (WTBA), which purchased the land, developed the monastery, and holds the title.
Bodhiyanarama enjoyed its glory days early on, under the leadership of Ajahn Viradhammo, when it expanded to become a sizable and thriving monastery. Since he left it has dwindled, and for many years now has rarely housed more than one or two monks. Bhikkhunis are not welcome.
Now, Ajahn Tiradhammo, the current abbot, wishes to change the legal basis of the organization. He wishes to change the constitution of the charitable association, with its open membership and democratically elected committee, and replace it with a model under which the stewards are appointed by the sangha and the abbot is appointed from Wat Pa Pong and Amaravati, and the WPP monks who make up the ‘resident Sangha’ will appoint a committee of lay trustees to handle the financials. All control is taken away from the locals, and the WPP Sangha can effectively insulate itself.
As I have shown at length in previous posts, such an arrangement is neither Vinaya nor Thai custom.
There are no abbots in the Vinaya – there is not even a word for ‘abbot’. The Sangha is, not a self-defined organization that excludes others, but the universal Sangha of the ‘Four Quarters’. Short of schism, there are no grounds in Vinaya for a group of monks to set themselves up in this sort of exclusive way.
In Thailand, the abbot is traditionally chosen through consultation between the resident Sangha, the local lay community, and a representative of the Sangha administration. (The Sangha administration is involved because under Thai law the monastery law belongs to the Sangha as constituted under the Sangha Act, and so the authorities have a legal duty of care. This, of course, does not apply in the case of monasteries overseas.)
What is the argument for this change? As best as I can make out, the argument is that the current WTBA constitution does not give any guaranteed ‘rights’ to the monastic community, including things such as decisions regarding what to build, or what monastics can stay. Things have been merely workable under a tacit agreement between the Sangha and the lay committee. Of course it is reasonable for the monastic Sangha to have a say in what happens in the monastery, and for this to be reflected in a constitution. It is quite possible to do this in a way that still gives the local lay community a say. It’s just a matter of balance. Certainly this is no justification for handing the entire monastery over to people overseas, especially when there is no guarantee that monks will actually be sent.
Having failed to persuade the committee, Ajahn Tiradhammo resorted to branch stacking at the AGM held on June 12. He secretly organized for a number of new people to come expressly to support him, and coached them before the meeting, hoping to make them members of a new committee. However, on a technicality they were not able to become voting members for the AGM and the previous committee was largely re-elected.
(Curiously enough, a similar manouver was attempted by the notorious New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) at an AGM of the Australian Sangha Association a few years ago. On the eve of the AGM we got a flood of membership applications from every NKT member in Australia. Under the ASA constitution, however, the NKT members do not have a recognized ordination, so are legally unable to become members.)
Accounts of the meeting are highly emotional. Many people present were very upset by the way this was done, and what they saw as the open manipulation of democratic processes happening in their Dhamma hall.
A strong letter of complaint has been sent to Ajahn Tiradhammo and several of the western WPP Ajahns. There have been allegations that the proposed revision is illegal under New Zealand trust law. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.
What exactly is going on here? The rules of Wat Pa Pong remain: discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns. Since the majority of devotees reject these principles, they have been kept secret as far as possible; however this is no longer possible. The only way to ensure survival is to gain absolute power over the considerable wealth and property invested in the monasteries.
We shouldn’t be surprised. The Ajahns have been telling us these things for years. Equality, democracy, rights: according to the clear, often repeated, and explicit teachings of senior Wat Pa Pong Ajahns, these things are alien, ‘Western’ values irrelevant to the Dhamma and of no value for liberation. What we are now seeing is simply these principles put into practice.
WPP faces a choice. Will they continue to endorse these principles? Or will they begin the difficult process of reflection and change?
There is a storm coming, make no mistake. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it will come. The senior teachers are passing away, and so the spiritual center of gravity that has held the Wat Pa Pong tradition together is dissipating. There are those within WPP who believe that discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns are the heart of the Buddhist monastic tradition. And there are those within WPP who believe that these are corruptions that defile the true Buddhist tradition.
Can these very different viewpoints be reconciled? Of course! There’s no great secret: recognize the problem, accept that it needs to be overcome, and work with commitment to overcome it. Since even the first of these is a long way off, however, I’m not holding my breath.
One by one, each of the Wat Pa Pong branch monasteries will have to decide where it stands. Whether it is to be an instrument of Thai Buddhist colonialism, or a source of spiritual vitality in its own land. The moral question is a no-brainer. The hard part is how to make it work.
In continuing my occasional series on Monastery constitutions and the legal/Vinaya issues involved, I’d like to take a short look at one recently revised constitution, that of Vimutti Monastery in New Zealand.
Vimutti is governed under the legal framework of the Auckland Theravada Buddhist Association. The ATBA has been an active presence for many years, and has had a long association with the WPP Sangha, originally through Bodhinyanarama monastery in Wellington, and later with the establishment of Vimutti under Ajahn Chandako. Since Vimutti has started, the ATBA has flourished, and the monastery, while still small, has been successful in bringing a forest tradition presence into the local region.
What I’d like to look at here is very narrowly some of the legal implications of the recently revised constitution. I don’t have access to the previous constitution, so I can’t say how the new one has been changed. But it certainly embodies some of the basic principles that are fundamental to the ideology of the new WPP direction.
The ATBA constitution starts with a typical set of aims, to propagate the Dhamma as taught in the Theravada tradition. It also lists as basic aims to ‘carry on the teachings and training of Ajahn Chah’ (2.e) and ‘to sponsor Theravada Buddhist monks who have taken dependence [nissaya] upon venerable Ajahn Sumedho or his successors as Teacher. (2.f)
It seems to me these clauses are deeply problematic, if not inherently contradictory.
To start with, notice that nowhere in these aims is there any mention of the Buddha’s teachings apart from the traditions. Of course it is obvious to any student of Buddhism that what is taught as ‘Theravada’ has a complex relationship with the teachings actually taught by the Buddha. It is also obvious that many of the teachings found within the Thai forest tradition are not the same as those found in traditional ‘Theravada’, and in some cases, is not found in the suttas either. I am not going to argue this here, but will simply take it for granted; certainly it is widely accepted within the Thai forest tradition itself that this is the case. Just as one example, Luang Ta Bua claims on the basis of his meditation experience that some of the things found in the suttas cannot be correct.
So we have a number of complex strands here, and no obvious way to sort through them. They are simply placed side by side, as if there is no issue.
But of course there are very many issues. One of the basic ones is, ‘Who gets to stay in the monastery?’ For monastics this is a crucial problem – we have to live somewhere.
The Vinaya as I understand it is that any monk has a right to reside in any monastery, unless there is a good reason not to; for example if there is not enough accommodation, or if the monk’s behaviour is inappropriate. (I will leave the question of bhikkhunis until later).
The ‘Theravada’ position, on the other hand, is that only Theravadin monks can fully participate in monastic life, especially sanghakamma. If ‘Mahayana’ monks arrive, they might be allowed to stay, but would remain on the periphery. This is the normal case in Wat Nanachat and other WPP monasteries, so far as I am aware.
The Thai tradition is then complicated by the division into Dhammayut and Mahanikay, a division that cuts right across the forest/city monk divide. Typically, if Mahanikay monk, such as a WPP monk, arrives at a Dhammayut monastery, they may stay for a short or long time, depending on the policy of the monastery, and they will normally be excluded from sanghakamma and other central Sangha processes.
What of the Ajahn Chah tradition? I remember long ago hearing, I believe it was Ajahn Jayasaro, recounting a story on this very point – someone please correct me if my memory is faulty. But it was when some of the senior WPP Ajahns had suffered the indignity of being treated as less than full monks at a Dhammayut monastery. Typically, we would have to have food offered separately, and so on. I have seen this myself, and seen the antagonism this arouses in the WPP Ajahns – as one Ajahn said to me, ‘We’re just novices to him!’ So, Ajahn Chah asks the monks, ‘What should we do?’ One of the Ajahns said, ‘Well, if they’re going to lock us out, we should do the same to them when they visit us!’ But Ajahn Chah said, ‘Well, how about we treat them according to Vinaya, instead? If they are good monks keeping good Vinaya, we should treat them as such.’
It was hearing such teachings that gave me faith in Ajahn Chah’s teachings. I had always been given to understand that the cornerstone of Ajahn Chah’s practice was to ignore the dross, and to focus on the core teachings of the Buddha – the four noble truths.
So it seems to me that the thrust of Ajahn Chah’s teachings was to bypass such notions as ‘Theravada’ and isolated, sectarian groupings, and to draw people into a closer, more real engagement with the essence of the Buddha’s teachings.
Now, the orientation of WPP has shifted so that reliance on the Dhamma-vinaya is effectively ignored (Remember that when Ajahn Brahm was expelled from WPP, he repeatedly asked for the Ajahns to tell him what he was doing wrong according to Vinaya, only for them to refuse to give any reply.)
One critical difference here is that, when we say we will rely on the Dhamma-vinaya, there is an objective standard. We can all reference the texts and discuss what is in them. But the tradition of Ajahn Chah is largely an oral one, and only the monks can be experts. And of course, hardly any of the Western monks have actually lived with Ajahn Chah for any length of time, so what the Ajahn Chah tradition really is, is a wide open field.
For example, Ajahn Chah always refused to have a monastery car. Now, of course, most monasteries do have cars, and in some cases, like Wat Nanachat, this is an extremely luxurious van. Now, should such changes be made? Well, in some cases, obviously yes. Times change, and we adapt. The critical questions are: What changes? Why? And who decides? Ajahn Chah was dead against such rituals as making holy water and messing with amulets and so on. But these things are common in WPP monasteries, even though they are against the rules. When Ajahn Chah was alive, he heard that people had gone to dig up the toilet of Ajahn Mun searching for relics: he ridiculed such a notion. But after he died, what did they do? … You guessed it…
The notion of those monks who ‘have taken dependence on Ajahn Sumedho and his successors’ is equally obscure. This is a crucial clause, as it allows for the ‘sponsorship’ of such monks, presumably by supporting them in their visa applications. If monks cannot get such sponsorship, it will be practically impossible for them to stay long term.
But what does this really mean? Ajahn Chandako has never been a student of Ajahn Sumedho. He was, for a time, a student of Ajahn Pasanno – is he a ‘successor’ to Ajahn Sumedho? What does this notion really mean? I know very well that Ajahn Chandako disagrees with some of Ajahn Sumedho’s central teachings, and has a very different orientation in his practice. For example, Ajahn Sumedho downplays the importance of samatha, while Ajahn Chandako is very dedicated to samatha. In fact, Ajahn Chandako’s main teachers in his early years were the Dhammayut forest masters, and a few of the Thai WPP Ajahns, not Ajahn Sumedho at all. This is not a criticism; in fact I think it is one of the strengths of the WPP tradition that it is not dogmatic – or at least, it has not been so in the past. The problem here is, what does it mean to be a ‘successor’ to Ajahn Sumedho?
If being a student of Ajahn Sumedho or his successors does not refer to actual studentship, or to following in the teachings and practices, it seems to me it can only refer to one thing: institutional maintenance. the ‘successors’ to Ajahn Sumedho are the self-appointed monks in positions of power within the overseas WPP branches.
This is all, of course, quite different from the teachings of the Suttas. Here is an abbreviated version of an example from the Gopakamoggallāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 108). This is a discussion between the layman Vassakara, a minister of Rajagaha, and Ānanda, shortly after the Buddha’s passing away.
‘Ānanda, is there any single bhikkhu who was chosen by the Buddha, or by the Sangha or Elder bhikkhus, to be your refuge after the Buddha is gone?
‘No, brahmin, there is not.’
‘But then, Ānanda, how do you live in harmony? What is your refuge’
‘We are not without refuge – the Dhamma is our refuge. The Buddha has laid down the training and prescribed the patimokkha. On Uposatha day, all the bhikkhus who live near a certain town meet in unison, and one recites the patimokkha. If a bhikkhu has a transgression, he confesses it, and we deal with that in accordance with the Dhamma. It is not the monks who make us act, it is the Dhamma that makes us act.’
This is in line with the statement by the Buddha that after he passes away, the Dhamma-vinaya that he has taught should be the teacher.
It is quite clear, then, that the Buddha did not set up any teacher’s lineages. This was reaffirmed at the Second Council, which was one of the defining events in the formation of Theravada. The Second Council ruled that following the practice of the teachers was allowable only if it was in accord with Dhamma-Vinaya. This principle became the cornerstone of modern Thai Buddhism, as King Mongkut criticized those who merely practised according to the teacher’s traditions, and always insisted on going back to the original teachings.
But sectarianism is a many-headed hydra. In every generation there are some who think they have the right to overturn the Buddha’s instructions. Invariably, this attitude comes from a sense of entitlement: that I, and my friends, have a unique place of privilege in Buddhism. Following that sense of entitlement, the next step is to guarantee continued ownership of land and resources. Remember, the very first thing that was said after Ajahn Brahm was expelled from WPP was, ‘Lets get his monastery!’ This wasn’t just a random statement by a loose monk, but was followed up with a formal delegation by a WPP committee that tried the pressure the central authorities to take Bodhinyana away from Ajahn Brahm.
This is the overall tenor of the ATBA constitution: to lock resources up inside the WPP tradition. This is further emphasised in the crucial role of the abbot. The abbot, of course, is not mentioned in the Vinaya; the very word for abbot is of later coinage (āvāsadhipati). So there are no Vinaya procedures for appointing an abbot. The closest would be in the appointment of Sangha officers. These are officials who have responsibility for looking after various duties in the monastery, such as the stores or accommodation. In these cases, the officer is appointed by sanghakamma, which requires, as with all sanghakamma, the unanimous consent of the bhikkhus within the sima.
The ATBA constitution states that the abbot is to be selected by unanimous agreement of the resident monks (that is, all those who are approved ‘Theravada’ monks, not all bhikkhus as in the Vinaya) in consultation with the abbots of WPP, Bodhinyanarama and other abbots in the lineage of Ajahn Chah. Since it is a consultative process, this is still within the general guidelines of Vinaya that one should respect and listen to Elders. Notice, however, that the requirement for consultation is not, as stated in the Gopakamoggallana Sutta and elsewhere, that the bhikkhus should be of a high spiritual level, but that they have been appointed to certain institutional positions.
The abbot is then confirmed by the Committee by a majority vote. It is not clear to me what would happen if the Committee disagrees. In any case, contrast this with the procedure as stated in the earliest of the Thai Sangha Acts, which is still the custom in Thailand, that the abbot is chosen at a meeting of the local devotees with the Sangha and the local regional Sangha head.
But the critical problem here is that the abbot retains the position until he dies, resigns, or the abbots of WPP and Bodhinyana issue written statements saying he must resign. (For some reason the usual clause ‘or if he disrobes’ is missing here.)
This is a very serious problem. The abbot of the monastery cannot be expelled by the Committee, but can be expelled at any time by two monks living in distant monasteries. The local community has no say in who those monks are, what decision that make, or why they make it. If such a clause had been present in the BSWA constitution, without doubt Ajahn Brahm would have been expelled following the bhikkhuni ordination. More likely, of course, he would never have supported it – which, it would seem, is why this clause has been inserted.
The effect of these clauses is to lock the ATBA up within the WPP tradition, as an institution, not as a spiritual movement. It seems to me that the lay community, having agreed to adopt this position, has effectively given up all power to change it, since the abbot can veto any decisions (4k).
It would seem that this veto power is balanced by the notion of an overriding resolution that may be adopted at a Special General Meeting. (8) Such a resolution may be put forward at a SGM proposed by the abbot or the committee or at least 10 members of the ATBA, and must be supported by at least 75% of the members present at the meeting. While this is not easy to achieve, it does give some measure of possibility for change.
However, it seems to me that this is undermined by section 17a and 17b. These deal with actually changing the rules for the constitution, and allow that the rules may be changed only with the consent of the Spiritual Director.
In other words, in all decisions apart from changing the constitution, it is possible, although difficult, to go against the will of the abbot. But in changing the constitution itself, this is not possible. It is locked in place without any checks and balances. The abbot, once appointed, cannot be removed by the lay community; and the constitutional changes that would allow this to happen cannot be made without his consent.
This comes back to the question of the nuns, which I earlier put aside. The ATBA constitution does not mention bhikkhunis, no doubt deliberately. It does allow that nuns follow ‘at least’ the ten samaneri precepts, so presumably this is worded to allow bhikkhunis to stay. However, the resident Sangha is defined as bhikkhus and siladhara. Once again, this is locking the thing up in the WPP tradition, or more narrowly, the Amaravati circle, since the siladhara are not really accepted as part of WPP. (The formal definition of ‘monastics’ issued by WPP includes anagarikas and mae chi, but excludes siladharas). So, only the dwindling few siladharas, who by their very position have been forced to formally sign an acceptance of their subservience to the bhikkhus, may be part of the resident Sangha. Bhikkhunis might, perhaps, be allowed to visit, but can never be a meaningful part of the community. Once again, the sectarian position, as invented by a few monks in England in the eighties, triumphs, and the Dhamma-vinaya of the Buddha is ignored.
The new constitution of the ATBA is based on an absolutist power structure. Such structures are always wrong for a monastery. When I arrived at Santi, our constitution had a similarly absolutist structure, and we changed it to create a balance of power.
My reading of the situation is that the western leaders of WPP know very well that they can no longer rely on their spiritual leadership to attract and maintain students. They have created an ideology that is sexist and discriminatory, and which goes against the values of the society in which they live. With the retirement of Ajahn Sumedho, and the aging and fragile health of LP Liem, the future of the order is very much in doubt. Now is the time to take formal legal control of resources, especially land and property, to ensure that their own sectarian movement can continue indefinitely.
For a student of history, this is fascinating stuff: we are seeing the forces that have shaped religious institutionalization happening before our very eyes. For a practitioner of Dhamma, however, it is sad to see. The monasteries that should be for the ‘Sangha of the four quarters’ are being locked away for the use of one narrowly-defined group.
Schopen’s discussion on ownership in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya is much more detailed, and I cannot hope to do it justice here. Here is Schopen’s own summary of his findings. As he emphasizes, it is difficult to draw definite conclusions without much more study, yet the findings in this summary are all securely attested in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya passages that he quotes. The Mulasarvastivada Vinaya typically represents a segment of northern Indian Buddhism, from say 200CE-500CE. It is today the canonical Vinaya in central Asian Buddhism, including Tibet, and Schopen relies on the Tibetan and Sanskrit sources.
Our texts fairly consistently use forms of the verb dadati, ‘to give’, or niryatayati, ‘to present’, to describe what laymen do with property in regard to monastic communities. But these same texts just as consistently continue to refer to the property that was ‘given’ to the monastic community as still belonging to the ‘donor’: it is ‘his’ or ‘mine’, depending on whether the donor is speaking or being spoken about. That this is not simply a necessary linguistic or narrative convention seems fairly certain from the kinds of obligations, interests,, and control that the donor continues to have in regard to the property even after it has been given. A donor, for example, not only provides ‘his’ vihara with its initial requisites or benefits, but he – or even his relatives in his absence – continues to do so. He also continues to be concerned about its physical maintenance: he personally rewards a monk who keeps it up, or he provides endowments for that purpose. Moreover, the monastic seal of the vihara bears his name, and its movable property is to be labeled as belonging to ‘his’ vihara. More specifically still, building sites on property donated by him cannot be sold, except for the specific purpose of benefiting the Community as a whole, without his permission; nor can a vihara or any moveable property donated by him be abandoned or disposed of at will by the monks. Even after being absent for more than ten years, he may claim as his own even property that has been removed from his vihara and stored in another. In light of all this, it is hard to know what to call that which the donor did with his property: if he gave it, that act of giving did not annul or even necessarily diminish the donor’s obligations, interests, or rights in regard to the property given.
Many of the passages Schopen cites concern the question of ensuring that the lay donors acquire merit. (A concern also found in the Thai Sangha Act, which stipulates as one of the duties of the abbot that he must make provision for lay people to make merit.) This merit is felt to continue and accrue, even after the death of the donor, but only, it seems, if the thing offered is actually used. (This was a point of contention among the schools; the Theravada position, at least in theory, opposes this idea.)
So when lay people offered plates to the monastery, the monks accepted them. When the donors next visited the monastery, they noticed the monks were not using the plates. They asked the monks, who said, ‘We have our bowls’. The lay people complained, and the Buddha instructed that the monks must use the plates. In another example, if there are monasteries offered that remain vacant, the Buddha instructed that they be used every day, even if this means that the monk must stay in one in the morning, take his meal in a second, go to a third for the afternoon, another for the evening, and sleep in still another. In each place, he has to make sure the place is swept and cleaned. Schopen comments:
Monasteries … are presented here primarily not as residences for monks to live but rather as potential and permanent sources of merit for their donors. [Monks are] under heavy obligations, and those obligations are not determined by the religious life or needs of the monks, but by the spiritual needs of donors.
The overall effect of the evidence Schopen presents is to make the notion of ownership much less absolute than we normally think. It is not a clear-cut legal right, such that a property of values departs, at one defined moment, from the hands of one party into the hands of another. It seems that ‘giving’ involved entering into a long-term relationship. The gratitude for the gift and the spiritual needs of both parties are a part of that relationship.
Some of the requirements found in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya sound extreme, and, as always with the Vinaya, it is unsure to what extent these rules where actually practiced, and to what extent they represent the views of the Vinaya redactors about what ‘should’ happen. Obviously we are witnessing a developed form of monasticism that has moved on considerably from the ideal found in the early texts. Nevertheless, the central notion is quite in accordance with the early texts, and indeed with Buddhist culture today, where the intentions of the donor are always considered in how the donation is used. In modern charity law, similarly, funds or property that are donated must only be used as per the intentions of the original donor.
Next up in the series on Monastery ownership, two posts based on Gregory Schopen’s essay, ‘The Lay Ownership of Monasteries and the Role of the Monk in Mulasarvastivadin Monasticism’ (Originally published in The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 19.1 (1996) 81-126. I am using the reprinted version, Chapter 8 of Buddhist Monks and Business Matters, University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.) This first essay deals with the inscriptions quoted by Schopen; the next, with the passages from the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya. Schopen emphasizes that this study is purely preliminary and is by no means complete or systematic. Here we present only a brief summary of the evidence he presents; the essay, as always with Schopen’s writings, is nuanced and provocative and well worth the read.
Schopen quotes a number of inscriptions from ancient India, which are seal or inscriptions that record the donation or ownership of a monastery. Most of these suggest that in some sense a lay person is the owner of the monastery. In most of the texts that follow, for the sake of clarity we will keep the Indic term vihara, which we have previously translated as ‘dwelling’. One inscription, a late second or early third century sealing from Intwa, near Jugadh, reads:
‘Of (or for) the community of bhikkhus in the vihara of the Great King Rudrasena
In the Wardak Vase Inscription we find ‘in Vagramarega’s vihara’, where Vagramarega is a layman.
Potsherds from Tor Dherai contain an inscription that reads:
This hall for providing water is the religious gift of the Shahi Yola-Mira, the owner of the vihara, to the Sangha of the Four Quarters, for the acceptance of the teachers of the Sarvastivada in his own – Yola-Mira the Shahi’s – monastery.
This passage emphasizes the ownership by repeating the name, stating that the monastery is ‘his own’ (svakiya) and calling the lay donor the ‘monastery owner’ (viharasvami). Notice also the use of two distinct ideas for the recipients. On the one hand the hall is for the Sangha of the Four Quarters, as in the early texts; on the other hand, a specific sect, the Sarvastivadins, are mentioned as recipients. Here we are seeing the emergence of sectarianism in ancient India, and one of the critical issues for the sects, the ownership of property. The passage as stands it quite ambiguous: it could be that the monks of the Sarvastivada merely accept the property on behalf of the ‘Sangha of the Four Quarters’, and that it was in fact intended and used for all Sangha. But the tendency is clear enough, that offerings came to be conceived in sectarian terms, and that for practical purposes, property came to be owned not by the Sangha as a whole, but by one or other sect. In another inscription referenced below, the reference to the Sangha of the Four Quarters disappears, and the donation is simply for ‘the teachers of the Dharmaguptakas’.
Incidentally, it seems to me that the term acarya here has no connection to the modern Thai usage of ‘ajahn’ to refer to senior monks, but simply refers to the monks of the school.
Schopen quotes a number of other examples of inscriptions:
We find it said, for example, that a ‘Bodhisattva image was set up by Amohaasi, the mother of Budharakhita, together with her mother and father, in her own monastery’ (sake vihare); or that… a group of merchants made a gift ‘in their own monastery’ (svake vihare); or that Pusyadata, the daughter of Gunda, an owner of a vihara (viharasvamin) also set up an image in ‘her own monastery’ (svake vihare).
In other inscriptions the lay donor does not seem to own the entire monastery, but one part of it, for example a shrine. For example a lay sister (upasika) named Nagapiya set up a Bodhisattva ‘in her own shrine for the acceptance of the teachers (acarya) of the Dharmaguptaka’.
Schopen gives a number of further examples. Clearly this evidence is sufficient to show that in ancient India it was normal for a monastery to be regarded as, in some sense, the property of a lay donor. The terms used, for example, calling the lay donor the ‘sami‘ or ‘svami‘ are the same as those found in the early Pali sources. What is not clear from these brief examples, or from the Pali passages which we have cited earlier (some of which Schopen discusses), is what exactly this notion of ‘ownership’ entails. Is it a purely symbolic notion, or does the lay donor exert practical influence over the monasteries? If this is the case, then what does it actually mean to say someone ‘owns’ a monastery? It is to these questions we will turn in the next post.
It is generally understood that monasteries in Thailand are owned by the Sangha as a whole, and administered by the local Sangha, especially the abbot. The Sangha as a whole here is not the ‘Sangha of the Four Quarters’, but the Sangha as legally recognized under the jurisdiction of Thai law, that is, the ‘Thai Sangha’.
In fact the situation is complex. While in Thailand I stayed in formally recognized monasteries, in hermitages in national parks occupied under an agreement with the national Parks authorities, and in little places that were in fact likely to be just squats. In some cases the land is originally made over to the monastery from the ‘commons’ owned by the local villagers; in other cases it is purchased from a single owner. The actual title owner of the land may not be clear in every case.
The Thai Sangha Act is not particularly helpful in this regard, and seems to take the question as a matter of course. Probably it is handled largely through custom and the decisions of the central authorities.
Here are some of the relevant statements from the first and the current Thai Sangha Acts. I include some passages from the outdated Act of 1902 as it clarifies some points omitted in the later versions. In particular, it clarifies that the ownership of a monastery is transferred from the (presumably lay) donor to the Sangha. And in the critical question of the election of the abbot, it stipulates that the villagers, local Sangha, a local administrative head should meet together to decide. This is still followed in Thailand. No doubt practice varies, but this is what happened in one Wat Pa Pong branch monastery that I was staying near in Nan, northern Thailand.
For your interest, here is the official text of all three Thai Sangha Acts.
Thai Sangha Act 1902
The authorities of the State are empowered to look after an abandoned monastery, that is to say, one in which there is no Bhikkhu, – together with its estate.
Anybody who wishes to build a new monastery is first to apply for Royal permissiom through the following manners:
(5 legal criteria)
In case of the unanimous approval on the part of the State District officer and the eccesiastical District Chief with reference to the five points mentioned above, the latter is authorized by Royal Permission to present the documents in order to be sealed by the former. The owner of the land is to transfer its ownership to the order of Sangha before any building process can be started.
There is to be an abbot for a monastery. (the King is to choose the abbot of royal monasteries, and may if he wishes appoint other abbots as well.)
(Otherwise, if in Bangkok) it shall be the duty of the Rājāgaṇa District Governor where the monastery is situated to summon a meeting of the Bhikkhus together with the lay devotees of that monastery for the sake of selecting the abbot. If the Rājāgaṇa District Governor has decided in favor of any bhikkhu, he (the former) is empowered to issue a certificate appointing the latter to be the abbot. The certificate of appointment shall also be counter-sealed by the Minister of Religious Affairs.
(Slightly different procedure for monasteries outside of Bangkok)
Now all abbots, unless they have been already bestowed a higher Ecclesiastical title, shall bear the title of Adhikāra.
An appeal against the abbot’s order, in case it is a monastery in Bangkok, can be filed to the Rājāgaṇa District Chief; in case it is one on the province, can be filed to the Ecclesiastical District Chief.
Thai Sangha Act 2505
Construction, establishment, combination, removal (from one place to another), abrogation, and applying for official recognition of consecrated boundaries (sīmā) shall conform to the ministerial regulations.
In case of abrogation, the property of the abrogated monastery shall be annexed to the Central Ecclesiastical property.
Land both belonging to a monastery and under control of a monastery is of the following categories:
- Monastery Compound. This means the area wherein various structures of a monastery are situated.
- Monastery Estate. This refers to a piece of land belonging to a monastery.
- Monastery revenue estate. This is a piece of land, the rent or other benefits of which is dedicated to the upkeep of a monastery or of the Buddhist order of Saṅgha as a whole.
Transference of ownership of the area wherin various structures of a monastery is situated or of a piece of land belonging to a monastery can be accomplished only through an Act. Nobody shall be allowed to file a case against a monastery by right of prescription concerning the property which is either a monastery compound or a monastery estate.
Monastery Compund and Monastery Estate are properties that are not subject to any enforcement by the Court of Law.
There shall be one abbot for a monastery. However, when it is deemed proper, there can be a vice-abbot or an abbot’s assistant.
In case of the absence of an abbot or his disability an acting abbot is to be appointed, with the same governing power and responsibilities as the abbot himself.
Appointment of an acting abbot is to conform to the principle and procedure determined in the rules of the Council of Elders.
Here we go, part two of an occasional series on monastery ownership and relevant legal issues. This installment I’ll have a look at some of the relevant passages from the Pali Vinaya. Since this is an ongoing work, I’ll not do too much analysis here, mainly just present and explain the references.
I’ve skimmed the Pali Vinaya to find these passages. I think they are reasonably complete, but I may well have missed some things, so help me out!
All references are to volume and page number of the PTS edition of the Pali text. I have not looked into other Vinayas on this point, or the commentaries.
It’s not always entirely clear what the Pali terms refer to, and they may have different meanings in context. Generally, though, this is my understanding of the terms.
Ārāma: originally ‘park’, then ‘monastery’, since parks (like the Jetavana or Veḷuvana) were frequently offered as monasteries.
Āvāsa: ‘residence’. The most common and general term for a place where monastics stay.
Vihāra: ‘dwelling’. A building, usually in an ārāma/āvāsa where monastics dwell.
Vatthu: ‘site’. The piece of land on which a monastery or dwelling is built.
Kuṭi: ‘hut’. A small dwelling. There are a large range of other kinds of dwelling specified.
The Great Paradigm
Shortly after teaching the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta the Buddha returned to Rajagaha, where King Bimbisāra became a supporter. He offered the first monastery, the Veḷuvana, or ‘Bamboo Grove’.
‘May I give this Bamboo grove pleasure park to the Sangha of bhikkhus with the Buddha at its head?’
‘etāhaṃ, bhante, veḷuvanaṃ uyyānaṃ buddhappamukhassa bhikkhusaṃghassa dammī’ti. Paṭiggahesi bhagavā ārāmaṃ.
This passage is an essential part of the ‘grand story’ of the Buddha’s life, and is clearly intended by the redactors to be the main paradign for offering a monastery. The king ‘gives’ (dadati) the monastery to the Sangha of bhikkhus, with the Buddha as head. The same procedure is found at 1.233, where Ambapālī offers her grove in same words as Bimisāra.
Anathapindika offers Jetavana, using a different formula.
Anāthapiṇḍiko gahapati bhagavato paṭissutvā Jetavanaṁ āgatānāgatacātuddissa saṅghassa patiṭṭhāpesi…
Note that the idea of the ‘sangha of the four quarters, past and future’ has appeared. This is a very significant notion, showing an awareness of the Sangha as spread out in space and lasting in time, rather than simply ‘the group of monks with the Buddha’.
The offering itself uses the word patiṭṭhāpeti (‘establish’) rather than dadati (‘give’); however the verse immediately following refers to ‘giving’ (dadati) a monastery, so the two phrases probably mean the same thing.
A monastery ‘specially for the Sangha’
Another phrasing is used in a passage that discussing the gift of a monastery at length. This deals with the situation where someone wants to offer a place for the Sangha during the vassa, and the Buddha allows that they break their vassa for up to seven days to received the offering.
A dwelling is built by a lay follower specially for the Sangha… [he said:] ‘I wish to give…’
upāsakena saṅghaṁ uddissa viharo kārāpito…. icchāmi dātuṁ…’
The passage is repeated for every possible type of building, monastery (ārāma and ārāmavatthu). It may be offered to a sangha of bhikkhus, a Sangha of bhikkhunis, a group of bhikkhus or bhikkhunis, or a single bhikkhu or bhikkhuni (or indeed, sāmaṇera, sāmaṇerī, or sikkhamānā). The person offering may be a lay man, lay woman, or a monastic.
The phrasing saṅghaṁ uddissa (specially for the Sangha) might be ambiguous – perhaps it could mean simply ‘for the use of the Sangha’; but the passage also says that the donor ‘wishes to give’, icchāmi dātuṁ, so this is clear enough.
Ownership of requisites of departed monastics.
The bowl and robes of departed monastics revert to the Sangha as the owner (sāmī) after the death. But from gratitude, the Sangha should offer them to those monastics who were nursing the sick person.
If there are other requisites left by a departed monk, those that are light requisites (lahubhaṇḍa) should be offered to the present (sammukhībhūta) Sangha; however heavy requisites (garubhaṇḍā) must be for the Sangha of the four quarters, past and future, and are not to be disposed of or divided up.
Garubhaṇḍa includes ārāma, ārāmavatthu, vihāra, vihāravatthu.
Repeats the above principle, saying that a monastery or site or dwelling cannot be given away
This rule is sometimes interpreted to refer to a monastery offered by a lay follower. However it seems to me this is not quite right. It’s not entirely clear to me how it should be rendered, but I would go with something like like this.
bhikkhū aññatarassa upāsakassa vihāraparibhogaṁ senāsanaṁ aññatra paribhunjanti.
A bed & chair that belonged to a certain lay follower was [meant] for use in one dwelling, but the monks used them in another [dwelling].
In other words, a layman brings along a bed or chair, invites the monks in a certain dwelling to make use of them, while not actally giving them to the Sangha; later, the monks take them away from that dwelling and use them elsewhere. If this interpretation is correct, this passage does not refer to a monastery owned by a lay person.
This passage explicitly refers to a dwelling owned by a lay person. A monk says to a layman, ‘Whoever lives in your dwelling (tuyhaṁ vihāre vasati) is an arahant’; of course, it was that monk himself who lived in the dwelling.
Two saṅghādisesa rules discuss the case where a hut or dwelling is built, which may either have an owner (sāmika) or not. The owner may be a woman or man or layman (gahaṭṭho) or one gone forth (pabbajita).
In this context, sāmī mainly means one responsible for the costs of building.
Refers to a variety of places that may be of ‘one family’ (ekakula) or ‘many families’, including a monastery. Does not clarify whether this is a family or clan of lay people only, or could include a monastic family, Sangha.
Talks of a ‘Sangha dwelling’, presumably implying that there might be non-Sangha dwellings. Sangha dwelling is defined as one that has been gifted to the Sangha.
saṅghika nāma saṅghassa dinnaṁ hoti paricattaṁ
‘Sanghika’ means, it is given and relinquished to the Sangha.
The rule analysis contrasts saṅghika with puggalika, ‘individual’. But it does not clarify whether this individual is a lay person or monastic.
The main paradigm is that of a monastery given to the Sangha of the Four Quarters. This means all Buddhist monastics, past and future.
However, it would seem that there are a variety of options and the Vinaya does not legislate on what is possible. A monastery might be owned by the Sangha as a whole, a group of monastics, a single monastic, or by a lay follower.
In the Cūḷasīla section of the Dīgha Nikāya and elsewhere, which constitutes an early description of monastic ethics, a monastic is said to refrain from accepting ‘fields and land’ (Khettavatthupaṭiggahaṇā paṭivirato…). However at 3.50 khetta is defined as a place where grains are produced; in other words, monastics may not accept farmland.
It should be noted that the Vinaya refers to a ‘Sangha’ as either the Sangha as a whole, or the monastics actually within a sīmā (monastic boundary). There is no concept of a ‘Sangha’ consisting of a partial organization within the greater Sangha. When monastics start to think of their group as different from, separate from, and (inevitably) better than, other Sangha members, then sects start to form. When those sects claim exclusive usage over monastery property originally intended for the Sangha of the Four Quarters we are a long way from the Vinaya.