Why Buddhists Should Support Marriage Equality

Marriage equality is one of the key social and legal issues of our time. I’d like to offer a Buddhist perspective.

As with so many ethical and social questions, especially those that involve sexuality, we find that religion wants to be at the core of things. The conservative Christian churches are leading the opposition to marriage equality. We can’t generalise on the basis of religion, though. Many Christians believe that Christ’s message of compassion and love, and the fact that he never made any statement on homosexuality, provide a basis for support of marriage equality.

In Australia there was an interesting exchange between the highly conservative Catholic leader Cardinal George Pell and the group Australian Marriage Equality. The AME asked to meet Cardinal Pell, and he consented to do so as long as the AME agreed that not all opposition to same-sex marriage was a result of homophobia or discrimination. The AME agreed, and came out with the following statement:

‘Just as we acknowledge that it is possible to oppose marriage equality without hating homosexuals, so we ask those who differ with us on this important issue to acknowledge that it is possible to support marriage equality without seeking to undermine, marriage, family, or religion.’

That’s a great starting point, and an all-too-rare example of dialogue as it should be.

But what of Buddhism? As with any issue, you’ll find a variety of positions; and as with any issue – and I apologise if this sounds cynical – most of those positions have little to do with anything the Buddha himself said or did.

In some cases we find Buddhist leaders who state the ethical case plainly. Ajahn Brahm has been very forward in supporting the gay community for many years, both in Australia and overseas. Master Hsin Yun, the leader of the international Fo Guang Shan order, said:

‘People often ask me what I think about homosexuality. They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them.’

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly maintained that homosexual acts are a violation against the precepts. At the same time, he insists on compassion and full human rights for all. His stance is solely concerned with what is appropriate behaviour for a Buddhist practitioner, not what should be made law.

His argument is that the sexual organs are designed for procreation and should be used solely for that purpose. So any form of sex that is not for procreation is out.

This is, to my mind, an extreme and unrealistic position. The Dalai Lama says it is based on certain medieval Indian scholars (Vasubandhu, Asanga – but I have never seen the passages myself). It certainly has no basis in the Suttas. On the contrary, the Suttas freely acknowledge that sex is for pleasure, and they never make a problem out of that. Buddhism is not a fertility religion, so why we should insist that sex be for procreation is beyond me.

The precept as found in the early Buddhist texts mentions nothing about whether sex is for procreation or not. What it talks about, solely, is whether the sexual relation involves the betrayal of a social contract. Here’s the text. It’s a stock passage, found for example in Majjhima Nikaya 41, and Anguttara Nikaya 10.176 and 10.211:

‘One is a person who misconducts himself in sexual pleasures. One has intercourse with a woman who is protected by mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, family, clan, law (or custom, ‘dhamma’), or one who has a husband, who is punishable, or even with one garlanded for betrothal.’

Kāmesu micchācārī hoti, yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sasāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.

Most of these are straightforward. They refer to women who are not ‘independent’ women in our modern sense, but who live under the authority of others. Typically, of course, this would have been young girls living at home, then in a family with a husband. There are significant variations, though, so arrangements were flexible.

It’s noteworthy that, while the Hindu texts say that a woman must always be under the authority of a man, here we find that living under the authority of a mother is next to father, and a sister is next to brother, with no implication that one of the other is preferable.

In some cases, it seems, women lived under the protection of the wider family. The one ‘guarded by dhamma’ is probably adopted, orphaned, or in some other way taken care of. The one who is ‘punishable’ is ambiguous: does it mean that the woman is to be punished (as a criminal)? Or does it mean that having intercourse with her is punishable? The text doesn’t make it clear. The woman ‘garlanded for betrothal’ refers to a woman who is, in our modern sense, ‘engaged’ but not yet married.

Obviously, the passage as stated above only refers to the man as agent. That doesn’t mean that women can’t break this precept! Like so many of the Buddhist texts, it is phrased from a male point of view (andocentric), and would apply equally to both genders. The assumption of the passage is that it is women who are under protection. This reflects the social reality of the Buddha’s time; it doesn’t endorse this situation, nor does it say that women can’t or shouldn’t live independently. It just says that if a woman (and presumably a man) is living in a committed relationship then one should not betray that.

This much is clear: the precept against sexual misconduct has nothing to do with homosexuality (or any other form of sexual activity as such.) It is concerned with breaking the bonds of trust with those that we love, and nothing else. While the specifics of the social relations in the Buddha’s time are different than today, it is not problematic to work out how to apply this in our own context, at least in most cases.

So if the precept does not concern homosexuality, what did the Buddha say on the topic? We are very lucky in Buddhism to have thousands of discourses, with the Buddha making observations or criticisms regarding many kinds of ethical issues. Rape, paedophilia, adultery: these and many other problems are clearly mentioned in the early texts, and the Buddha made it clear that he didn’t approve of them.

In the case of homosexuality, however, we have nothing in the Suttas. In all the thousands of discourses, not a single one regarded homosexuality as a significant issue.

There is one passage in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta, which is sometimes cited by those who are trying to prove that the Buddha was anti-gay. The text discusses various examples of moral decay in society. One of the practices it mentions is, in the Pali, micchā-dhamma. This is about the most generic term for wrong doing that it’s possible to make in Pali. You could translate it as ‘wrong teachings’, ‘bad practices’, ‘misguided actions’, and so on. The commentary, compiled nearly 1000 years later in Sri Lanka, however, says it means, ‘Lustful desire of men for men, and women for women.’ (Micchādhammoti purisānaṃ purisesu itthīnañca itthīsu chandarāgo.) Since this has no basis in the text, it stands as a record of the attitude of a medieval commentator. There’s no evidence, so far as I am aware, that this attitude was representative of ancient Theravadin or Sri Lankan culture in general.

The Suttas essentially ignore any issues around homosexuality. Now, arguments from absence are always difficult. But the presence of thousands of discourses detailing lists of many kinds of ethical violations, strongly suggests that the Buddha tried to be reasonably comprehensive in addressing ethical concerns, and homosexuality was not one of them.

The picture in the Vinaya is a little different. The Vinaya is a legal code for monastics, and since it regulates the conduct of a celibate order, it deals with all kinds of possible sexual behaviours. It does so with a degree of frankness and candour that so shocked the early European translators that they simply omitted large chunks of text, or, with a quaint regard for the delicate sensibilities of young readers, translated them into Latin.

Homosexual acts, like just about any other imaginable sexual act, are depicted many times in the Vinaya, both among monks and nuns. In each case, the Buddha is shown as responding in his usual direct and common sense manner. Obviously, homosexual behaviour, like any sexual behaviour, is inappropriate among the celibate monastic community, so the Buddha prohibits it. However, this is done in a straight, matter-of-fact tone, and there is never a suggestion that there is anything wrong with gay sex per se.

In several cases the penalty is actually less in the case of homosexual behaviour. For example, for a monk to erotically touch another man is a less serious offence than the same act with a woman. Sex between women, likewise, is treated less seriously than between a woman and a man. There is one passage where the Buddha’s chief disciple, Venerable Sariputta, is said to have had two novices as students. But they had sex with each other. The Buddha laid down a rule that one should not take two novices as students at the same time! (This rule, like many others, was later relaxed.)

However, it would be a mistake to read this as implying that the Buddha regarded same-sex sexuality as somehow more permissible in the Sangha. The Vinaya, as a legal code, frequently makes judgements for various technical reasons, and there is no strong correlation between the moral weight of an act and the severity with which it is treated in the Vinaya. For example, building an overly-large hut is a serious offence, while bashing someone within an inch of their life is a minor offence.

So we shouldn’t read too much into the relative leniency of how some homosexual acts are treated in the Vinaya. The main point is simply that homosexuality is treated in pretty much the same way as any other expression of sexuality.

In these accounts there is nothing that really corresponds with our modern notion of sexual orientation. For the most part, same-sex acts are just that, acts. There’s no idea of a person who solely or primarily is attracted to people of the same sex.

The texts do speak of a certain kind of person, called a paṇḍaka. These are typically male, but there were females too (itthīpaṇḍikā). A paṇḍaka is forbidden to ordain, and is regularly associated with unbridled sexuality. It is, however, unclear exactly what paṇḍaka means. The descriptions of the paṇḍaka are few, and not always consistent, but there seems to have been some physical attribute involved, as well as a set of cultural behaviours. Perhaps they were some form of eunuchs who performed sexual services. In any case, the paṇḍaka is clearly not a homosexual in the modern sense of the word. They may be connected with the modern classes of Hijras and the like, who are considered a ‘third sex’ in India, including transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and eunuchs.

To sum up, early Buddhism is well aware of homosexual acts, and never treats them as an ethical problem. Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is not found.

This is completely in line with the Buddha’s take on ethics. The Buddha did not ethically judge persons, he judged deeds. People are simply people, who do various kinds of things, some good, some bad. If a person does a deed that causes harm, this is what the Buddha considered ‘unskilful’. If the deed causes no harm, it is not unskilful.

The basic problem in sexual ethics, addressed in the third precept, is betrayal. ‘Sexual misconduct’ is sexual behaviour that causes harm by breaking the trust that a loved one has placed in us. The Buddha was compassionate, and he never laid down ethical rules that caused harm or distress. Making a moral proscription against homosexuality marginalises and harms people who have done no wrong, and it is against the basic principles of Buddhist ethics.

It’s so important to keep this essential ethical question in mind. In discussions on homosexuality, as with just about any other controversial ethical issue, there is a pervasive tendency to confuse the issue. Why do we find it so difficult to look at an ethical question rationally? It is true, there are some issues that are complex and the details can be difficult to work out. But this is not one of them.

Countless times we are told, for example, that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’. Surely a moment’s reflection should show us this is not true, because there’s plenty of homosexuality in the animal world. And anyway, how is gay sex more unnatural than, say, typing on a keyboard, or wrapping food in plastic? But this is all beside the point. Being ‘unnatural’ is not an ethical issue. The issue is whether it causes harm, not whether it is natural or not. That is no more an ethical issue than is the choice, say, to eat organic or non-organic vegetables.

Homosexuality is also regularly linked with sexual ‘decadence’ in general. Homosexuals are said to be paedophiles, or promiscuous, or to cause diseases such as AIDS. Allowing homosexual relations is to licence all manner of debaucheries. This objection, too, is not valid: gays behave in all sorts of ways, just as do straight people.

Blaming gays for AIDS is one of the most cruel arguments possible. We feel compelled to look for examples that show the absurdity of these views. What of babies born with AIDS? What of those who get AIDS via blood transfusion? Incidence of malaria is much greater among poor people – are we to blame them, too? And why is incidence of AIDS among lesbians so very low – is lesbianism kammically preferable?

But we shouldn’t have to look for such examples. Like the arguments mentioned above, the whole thing is missing the point. Take the ‘worst case’ scenario, the cliché of the promiscuous, irresponsible, drug-taking, careless gay man. We might not think his behaviour is praiseworthy or wise, but does it deserve a slow, lingering, and painful death? Are we really comfortable to righteously proclaim the justice of destroying a human life, because we think that the way they have sought pleasure is irresponsible? This whole argument is inhuman and unworthy.

If there are behaviours that gay people do that increase transmission of HIV, for example, then we can try to change those behaviours, just as we would try to help any people who were inadvertently causing harm. What the marriage equality movement wants is to enable people of various sexual orientations to live in an accepted, recognised, and legal framework which supports the development of loving, committed relationships. Banning gay marriage is the very best way to ensure gays remain marginalised.

Another red herring, in my view, is the ‘born this way’ argument, which is often used by those who support marriage equality. Homosexuality, so the argument goes, is not a choice, some people are just like that and can’t change. While this is an important, if contested, fact, it misses the ethical issue. What if some gay people don’t feel like they were ‘born this way’? What if they feel like they have made a conscious choice? Whether this is the case or not, or whether there are in fact hidden biological factors involved, so what? Having sex with someone of the same gender is not a harmful deed, nor is marrying someone of the same gender. Whether it’s by biological determinism or free will, nothing harmful is done, so there’s no ethical problem.

Perhaps the single most fallacious argument against gay marriage is simply that it upsets the customs of society. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, therefore it will damage society to do it any other way.

This argument, favoured by conservatives, once again completely misses the point. The damage is already here. Violence, trauma, and abuse is a part of the living reality of millions of perfectly good people all over the world, simply because the have, or want to have, sex with persons of their own gender. Part of society is broken, and it needs fixing.

This is the same argument that was used to oppose abolishing slavery, votes for women, property rights for all, and so on. In each case, those in the position of privilege strive to keep others from getting the same rights. And since the cost of inequality is borne by the ‘others’, it does not exist for the privileged.

When we introduce compassion into the equation, however, we recognise that society has always been imperfect. Just because something was done in the past does not make it right. Perhaps it was the case that in certain times and places our marriage customs made more sense than they do now. But that’s not the point. The point is, what is the right thing to do now? To continue to exclude, marginalise, and discriminate? Or to broaden our moral horizons, to fully accept and include all people?

If homosexuality as such is not a problem, what then of same-sex marriages? In this area we find that the Buddha had even less to say. In fact, there is no such thing as a Buddhist marriage. Buddhists have simply adopted the marriage customs of the culture they find themselves in. The most basic model, therefore, was the customs of ancient India. These have been the basis for Buddhist family customs, adapted in each society that Buddhism has gone to.

In ancient India, there were several forms of marriage. As with all things Indian, there is no insistence on one true, correct way of doing things. Some Hindu texts list a whole range of marriage possibilities, which are correlated with the levels of Indian cosmology. The highest form of marriage is the ‘Brahma wedding’, where the bride and groom, each pure in lineage and caste, is united in the most perfect of ceremonies. If the marriage is lacking in some perfections of detail, it is reckoned as pertaining to the lower classes of deities. The lowest of the auspicious weddings is the gandharva wedding, where the bride and groom simply elope. Then there are the various inauspicious unions, those of the yakkhas or rakkhasas, where, for example, the woman is abducted by force.

Along with this diversity in wedding style, there were different marital arrangements. Monogamy seems to have been common, and of course these were often arranged marriages – but ancient Buddhist texts also record a strong struggle by women for autonomy in the marriage choices. Polygamy is also common, and was the norm for kings. Polyandry is less common, but is central to the most famous of all Hindu texts, the Mahabharata. Apparently polyandry is common in Tibet.

I’m not trying to uphold the Indian marriage system as superior to that in the West. It has its own problems with inter-caste marriages, arranged marriages, domestic violence, and so on. I’m merely making the point that there has traditionally been an adaptive diversity of living arrangements that were considered to be valid forms of marriage, and that this can be seen in some ways as a precedent for the modern idea of same-sex marriages.

So there has always been a flexibility and diversity in marriage customs in the Indian sphere that stands in clear contrast with the ‘one and only’ correct form of marriage that is, in the main, endorsed by the contemporary monotheistic religions. Same-sex marriages were not, so far as I’m aware, historically acknowledged within the Indian cultural sphere. Nor am I aware of any laws against them, such as we find in the modern day. Given the wide variations in marriage customs, including many forms of marriage that would not be considered valid in modern times, it would seem that the typical Indian approach was that of tolerance and inclusion. Accordingly, when the British law that made gay sex a crime was repealed in India in 2009, some Hindu authorities applauded the move, saying homosexuality was part of the divine order.

Unfortunately, this tolerant attitude is not always the case today. One sometimes finds Hindutva polemics against homosexuality. Such discourse, sadly enough, often rails against the supposed debauched influence of ‘Western’ morals, oblivious to the fact that anti-gay attitudes were themselves imported into India by the monotheistic religions. This ambiguity has been expressed by the highest authorities in India. Goolam Vahanvati, then solicitor-general and current attorney-general, stated to the UN Human Rights Council:

‘Around the early 19th Century, you probably know that in England they frowned on homosexuality, and therefore there are historical reports that various people came to India to take advantage of its more liberal atmosphere with regard to different kinds of sexual conduct.

‘As a result, in 1860 when we got the Indian Penal Code, which was drafted by Lord Macaulay, they inserted Section 377 which brought in the concept of “sexual offences against the order of nature”.

‘Now in India we didn’t have this concept of something being “against the order of nature”. It was essentially a Western concept, which has remained over the years. Now homosexuality as such is not defined in the IPC, and it will be a matter of great argument whether it is “against the order of nature”.’

A similar situation prevails in other Buddhist countries, too. In Japan, China, and elsewhere, the early generations of Christian missionaries were shocked at the casual acceptance of homosexual behaviour among the Buddhists. They immediately set about trying to persuade the world that their own version of sexual propriety was the right one for everyone.

Sadly enough, modern generations of Buddhists and Hindus are now doing this work for them, oblivious to their own more accepting and compassionate past. When a Thai monk like Thattajiwo, one of the leaders of Dhammakaya, rails against the ‘sexual perverts’, who have called down the kammic justice of AIDS (‘the executioner of the sex-mad’) upon them, oblivious of the pit of sin they have fallen into, and the even greater sufferings that await them in future disease-ridden hells of torment, he is merely parroting the frothing excesses of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. (Phra Thattajiwo Bhikku. Waksiin Porng-kan Rook Eet (A Vaccine to Protect Against AIDS). Pathumthani: Thammakay Foundation.) Such apocalyptic and condemnatory ‘ethics’ have no basis in the Buddha’s teaching.

So in today’s climate, what are we to do? For the Buddha, homosexuality was clearly not an issue. Nor was making laws proscribing valid forms of marriage. What was an issue, on the other hand, was compassion. The very essence of compassion is to reach out to those who are suffering, those who are marginalised. and persecuted. People whose sexual orientation varies from the majority suffer discrimination, bullying at school, violence, and emotional trauma. As Buddhists we should recognise a clear moral imperative to help wherever we can.

One might object that since the Buddha made no statement on the legalities of gay marriage, we should do the same. But the problem is a little more subtle than that. We are living in a culture where, based on certain religious and cultural ideas, certain ways of living one’s life have been made illegal. This is an artefact of the conditioned and always arbitrary course of history, not a timeless feature of the human landscape. In Australia, for example, there was no clear Federal law that prohibited same-sex marriage until 2004.

Supporting marriage equality is not to introduce something new, but simply to abolish laws that discriminate. The injustice is already in place. The harm is being done. The change is merely to remove the harmful influence of discriminatory laws, which should never have been there in the first place.

People are people, regardless of their gender, colour, nationality, or sexual orientation. The Buddha taught ‘for one who feels’. That’s the only requirement for Buddhist practice: one who feels. In the past our society decreed that marriage should not be between people of a different race, or a different colour, or a different religion, or a different nationality. Over time, we decided that these rules were harmful, and we abolished them.

Catastrophes were predicted: they didn’t come true.

What has happened, rather, is that we have become a little more open minded, and a little more aware of the suffering of others. The test of our generation is whether we can continue this move towards a more accepting and loving way of living, or whether we are to regress to a meaner, hard-hearted place.

My society, my culture, the one that I’m proud of and want to belong to, is this one. The society that is kind, questioning, accepting. Let us take up the best aspects of our own cultures, whether they be Buddhist or modern cultures, and discard all that is unjust, discriminatory, and harmful. Let us give our full support for marriage equality, for if we do not we are betraying the best part of our humanity.

Nuns and Rape

There has been an international response to the horrific gang rape of a nun in Nepal as I reported earlier. It is terrible that it takes such an extreme case to draw attention to what has been an ongoing problem for many years. Nevertheless it’s good that something is finally happening. A new article suggests that the Nepalese authorities have finally offered to provide her with free medical care. There has been significant international interest in pursuing this case, and I will keep you up to date.

Here is an article I wrote a number of years ago in response to this issue. It is a revised portion of Chapter 4 of the book Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies (Santipada).


In some countries, such as India, nuns have been raped and subsequently forced or encouraged to disrobe, being told that they have broken the basic precept for their celibate life (pārājika 1), and can no longer continue to live as a nun. This has caused a tremendous degree of distress and trauma, and moreover creates a climate where nuns fear to report any attacks, which can further encourage would-be rapists. But the Vinaya is not so cruel, and deals with rape in a compassionate way, allowing the nun, who is the victim not the perpetrator, to continue her spiritual path.

The position of the Vinayas on this point is quite straightforward, so we will simply present some relevant Vinaya passages from the Vinayas of the three main traditions: the Pali Vinaya of the Theravada; the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as observed in the Chinese and related Mahayana traditions; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya as observed in the Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition.

Theravāda

The Pali version of bhikkhuni pārājika 1 specifies that a bhikkhuni only falls into an offense if she acts willingly. This is confirmed by actual examples in the Pali Vinaya where a bhikkhuni is raped:

Now on that occasion a certain student was infatuated with the bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā. And then that student, while bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā had entered the town for alms, entered her hut and sat down concealed. Bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā, returning from alms-round after her meal, washed her feet, entered the hut, and sat down on the couch. And then that student grabbed bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā and raped her. Uppalavaṇṇā bhikkhuni told the other bhikkhunis about this. The bhikkhunis told the bhikkhus about it. The bhikkhus told the Buddha about it. [The Buddha said:] ‘There is no offense, bhikkhus, since she did not consent’.1

Similarly, there are other cases of bhikkhunis who are raped, and in no instance is any offense or blame imputed to the bhikkhuni.2 This is entirely consistent with the application of the rule for bhikkhus, since whenever a bhikkhu had sexual intercourse or oral sex without his consent he was excused by the Buddha.3 Indeed, there is a series of cases where bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, sikkhamānas, sāmaṇeras, and sāmaṇerīs are abducted by Licchavī youths and forced to have sex with each other. In each case, if there is no consent there is no offense.4 This understanding is maintained in the Pali commentarial tradition.5

Dharmaguptaka

Unlike the Pali, the rule itself does not specify that the bhikkhuni is acting out of lust. However, this factor is found in the rule analysis, which specifies that a bhikkhuni must consent to penetration with sexual desire.6 Further, she must experience pleasure at the time of entering, remaining, or leaving in order for there to be an offense.7 This is made clear in the non-offense clause:

There is no offense if while asleep she does not know; if there is no pleasure; in all cases where there is no lustful thought.8

Mūlasarvāstivāda

Like the Dharmaguptaka, there is no specific mention of ‘desire’ in the rule formulation itself. But again the rule explanation makes the point clear.

If she is forced, then if she does not feel pleasure in the three times [i.e., when entering, staying, or leaving] there is no offense. The offender is to be expelled.9

This quote comes from the Chinese translation of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. I can’t read Tibetan, so I can’t confirm that the same passage is found in the Tibetan version, which is the normative Vinaya for the central Asian traditions. However, given how consistent the traditions are in this, as in all major points of Vinaya, there is no reason to think the Tibetan text is any different.

Who is to blame?

As suggested by the last case mentioned in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, in the case of rape, it is the rapist, not the victim, who is to blame. The Vinaya attitude towards rape of a bhikkhuni is uncompromising. A man who rapes a bhikkhuni cannot ever be ordained, and if they are ordained by mistake, they must be expelled.10 Similarly, a novice who rapes a nun must be expelled.11 The treatment of a rapist of bhikkhunis is treated in the same way as one who commits one of the 5 ānantarika acts (murdering one’s mother or father or an arahant, wounding a Buddha, and maliciously causing schism in the Sangha). Thus the rape of a bhikkhuni is regarded as one of the most heinous possible acts, with dreadful practical and kammic repercussions on the offender. When Uppalavaṇṇā was raped, the commentary tells us that the earth, unable to bear the weight of that evil, split in two and swallowed up the rapist, who immediately fell into hell. Never is the slightest blame attached to the victim of the rape.

The position of the Vinayas is thus clear and unanimous: there is no offense for a nun who is raped, and the blame must lie with the rapist. A nun, whose life is devoted to celibacy and non-violence, will feel shattered and deeply traumatized by rape. At that time she needs support from her friends and teachers in the holy life. As in all the Vinaya cases mentioned above, she need feel no shame or blame in talking about the rape honestly and openly with other nuns, and if need be, with monks as well. The friends and teachers of the victim need to extend the greatest possible compassion and support. They must clearly and consistently reassure the victim that she has done nothing wrong and has not in any way broken her precepts. It is important that the police are told about the rape, so they can try to prevent similar crimes in the future. The Sangha should investigate whether there is any ongoing danger to nuns in that situation, and should take steps to ensure their protection and safety.


1Pali Vinaya 3.35: ‘anāpatti, bhikkhave, asādiyantiyā’ti. NOTE: references to the Pali Vinaya are to the volume and page number of the PTS edition of the Pali text. References to the Chinese Vinayas are to the Taisho edition.

2Pali Vinaya 2.278, 2.280

3E.g. Pali Vinaya 3.36, 3.38, etc.

4Pali Vinaya 3.39

5E.g. Dvemātikapāḷī: chande pana asati balakkārena padhaṁsitāya anāpatti. (When there is no consent, but she is taken with force, there is no offence.)

6T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b5-6 : 比丘尼有婬心。捉人男根。著三處大小便道及口

7T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b12 ff.

8T22, no. 1428, p. 714, c7-9 : 不犯者。眠無所覺知不受樂一切無欲心

9T23, no. 1443, p. 914, b12: 若被逼者三時不樂無犯。逼他者滅擯

10Pali Vinaya 1.89

11Pali Vinaya 1.85

Turns of events

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.

Long answer:

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.

The True Wonder of the Mind

I’m struck, more and more, at how strange everything is. We see: and have no idea what seeing really is. We try to ‘explain’ it; eyes, light, nerves, brain, perception, memory, consciousness – and trail off in a sequence of ever more poorly defined and subjective terms. In the end, what have we ‘explained’? Nothing, I am beginning to suspect. And in the end, we still see just the same.

Volition. I want to move my arm and it moves. But what is it, really? When mindfulness gets sharp, you can catch the moment of volition: the shcklmgh of the mind (sorry, I don’t have a better word for it) that just precedes movement. You catch it, and it hovers for a moment, a volition exposed naked in space, almost unbearable, wanting to fulfil the nature of its being, before reluctantly slinking back into its ljbhewerg (sorry again, please suggest a better word if you have one). We think it’s gone. But even with sharp mindfulness you might not notice it; it still lurks, hopeful, and when attention falters it darts out and does the movement, gleeful as a kid with his hand in the lolly jar.

What is the connection between volition and action? The concept is clear enough: a volition precedes (certain) physical actions. (Let’s not get lost in unconscious, automatic, or other even more mysterious processes here…) We will, then we do. But what is the link, really? Look, in experience, there’s nothing there. You can’t see any cause.

‘Cause’ is perhaps the most mysterious thing of all. It seems to be forever hidden, always one step away. We operate, I tend to think, on a hidden assumption of little billiard balls hitting each other. That’s what cause is: one thing ‘hits’ another, and then it ‘causes’ the other thing to change in some way. Of course, this is errant nonsense, even for billiard balls. Zoom in to a close enough resolution, and billiard balls become not solid entities (as imagined in reassuring textbook drawings) but buzzing clouds of semi-organized energies. Like this. So what is actually ‘hitting’ what? Nothing, actually. And if the interactions of mere crude matter are so arcane, so inaccessible, then what of mind, so subtle and elusive?

Perhaps, after all, truth is merely pragmatic. Scientific truth falls apart if you chase it down far enough. At school we learnt Newton’s so-called ‘laws’ – which are routinely broken at both the very small and very large scales. Did you ever stop to think about what these things really mean? What is ‘force’? What is ‘mass’? Even worse are notions like ‘velocity’, which depends on ‘time’ – one of the most indefinable concepts imaginable. Yet we think that somehow these laws ‘explain’ something. What they do, undeniably, is enable us to manipulate things. They give us power, they are pragmatic. But they are more in the nature of accurate rules of thumb than immutable laws inscribed in the universe.

What are we actually seeing when we meditate? Most obviously, the objects of the six senses. We know enough to distinguish, at least in theory, between the bare sense object (e.g. ‘light’) and the conceptual interpretation of what is seen (‘rooster’). So, what is it, then, light? We can answer from the inside, ‘Light is what we see’ (which is tautological), or from the outside, ‘Light is electromagnetic radiation in a range from about 380 or 400 nanometres to about 760 or 780 nm’. Reassuring, with that comforting, lulling precision of science – except when we note that the unit of measurement (the meter) is defined in terms of wavelengths of light, so that’s tautological again. Not to mention the somewhat embarrassing problem that physics doesn’t really know what electromagnetic radiation is, and despite generations of the best minds on the planet devoting their lives to it, they haven’t worked out how it is related to the other supposed ‘fundamental’ forces.

We circle through the incredible journey of discovery that has been humanity’s voyage, and in the end, light is, well, ‘this’. And that, pretty much, is the best we can do without committing to some kind of conceptual loop, some widening gire.

The more I dig down into experience, the less I find. The less I expect to find. And the odder I find any notion that there, at the bottom of it all, is some form of ‘ultimate’ reality; whether that is the ultimate particles that some in physics are still searching for, or the ultimate realities of the Abhidhamma commentaries, which some Buddhists believe they have found many centuries ago. The ‘ultimate realities’ of Buddhist theory are no more solid than those of physics. We know that things like, say ‘taste’ or ‘life’ or ‘faith’ or ‘greed’ are complex and many-faceted, but the (late) abhidhamma theorists treated tham as the ultimate entities of existence. We know that when we do reductionist analysis we find that things on a much smaller level are very different than on higher levels. The parts of a TV are not small TVs. So why should the parts of any of the things we experience be simply smaller occasions of the same experience? I remain mystified as to why so many people find this a vaguely plausible notion.

Reality is not like that. It’s not so readily managed into simple categories. We need to confront it, be with the sheer enormous weirdness of things. Every sense object, sense base, sense consciousness, is just plain weird. Perhaps that should be the fifth mark of conditioned things: impermanence, suffering, not-self, emptiness, and weirdness. (A concept not without its precedents…) And the weirder things get, the more they make sense.

Y’know, in a weird kinda way.

The Autobiography of Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana

I just found in the BSWA library a fascinating little book, the English translation of the autobiography of Vajiranana. (Autobiography: The Life of Prince-Patriarch Vajiranana. Ed & trans Craig J Reynolds, Ohio University, 1979.)

He was one of the very many sons of King Mongkut, and following on from Mongkut’s modernist tendencies, was perhaps the single greatest reformer in modern Thai Buddhism. His autobiography, one of the first of its kind in Thai literature, is brief, honest, and refreshingly candid, although it only covers the period of his early life, up to the first few years as a monk. The English edition is excellent, with a detailed introduction and very useful notes.

What comes across most strikingly is Vajiranana’s constant effort to balance the Dhamma and his duties and temptations as a prince. He details at length his period of decadence as a young man, with gambling and overspending, although he confesses he was a failure at being a drunkard and was never attracted to women. This period is interesting, although it follows an edifying formula, paralleling Siddhattha’s early life, and has a clear literary purpose in contrasting with his reform as he discovered Buddhism.

What is interesting, though, is that this reform happened not through an encounter with a monk or Buddhist teachings, but through his Scottish teacher, Dr Peter Gowan, who lived “like an Indian rishi” and who, among other things, persuaded Vajiranana to give up smoking. It’s fascinating to see how the east and west were closely intertwined even in those days, as Vajiranana repeatedly says how much he liked European ways, and says again and again that he did things just because they were European, whether good or bad. He makes explicit connections between the Sangha hierarchy and western religious forms, saying that the rank of chao khana is equivalent to the Church of England’s Bishop.

In addition to his encounters with Gowan, and of course with the various monks who he knew, his defining moment of dispassion came when he saw that a table that he had bought, and which he thought was so lovely, was in fact fairly cheaply made, and coming apart. This little observation turned him off materialism forever – a realistic psychological detail.

Vajiranana didn’t seem to have a very positive view of women, and saw one of the benefits of his initial stay in the monastery as a novice in his young teens very much in terms of the traditional process of an initiation into the men’s circle. It was the tradition that young princes would live in the Inner Palace among the Palace women until they ordained as novices around age 14, after which they would not return to the Inner Palace. Vajiranana says (p. 9) that he was happy to be in the monastery as:

‘the talk of women had no wit’… ‘Living at the monastery was beneficial in rapidly making my sensibilities and mannerisms more masculine, although in my subsequent residence there as a novice I tended to acquire less intrepid, feminine mannerisms.’

In his later teens he began to seriously study and reflect on the teachings. He was particularly struck by the Kalama Sutta ‘which taught one not to believe blindly and to depend on one’s own thinking.’ This was in the late 1800s, and he apparently noticed this sutta, which has come to define modernist Buddhism, by himself. Like King Mongkut before him, he took a sceptical attitude towards the miraculous events described in the texts, deciding, for example, that the attack by the army of Mara could not be true. But he says that he lacked the Pali expertise at the time to carefully investigate such cases, merely making up his mind and rejecting what he didn’t like. Only later did he come to realize that such teachings could be interpreted in an allegorical sense. He was not alone in taking such an inquiring attitude, for he remarks that:

After hearing senior monks object to certain passages I learned to make up my own mind, to select those passages which were acceptable to me and to reject, as if sifting out gold from the sand, those which were unacceptable…

Vajiranana refers to his strong temper, and while his autobiography is quite restrained and generous-spirited, he shows a degree of impatience for narrow-minded or overly ritualistic monks. He praises his teacher Brahmamuni, as “he did not have the narrow mindedness typical of a monk who thinks of himself as orthodox.” He writes critically of the dispute in his time between the ‘water’ monks and the ‘land’ monks – those who were ordained in a water sima were considered more pure than those ordained on land. He says, “Pious laywomen of that school fluttered about praising the ‘water monks’ and disparaging the ‘land monks’…”

Throughout, there is precisely no emphasis on any of the higher teachings. No meditation, no deep philosophy, no liberation, no Nibbana. When he mentions the benefits he has received from his Dhamma study, they are all very limited, worldly concerns.

In this regard, the forest tradition has surely made an incalculable contribution, by placing meditation and liberation where they should be, at the heart. Yet in their dismissal of study, the forest tradition has forgotten how much they owe to reformers such as Vajiranana. Without such scholars, there would be no critical study of Buddhist texts, no understanding of how the Pali suttas are the most authentic teachings of the Buddha, and subsequently no understanding of the central role of meditation in liberation. While forest tradition monks rely, usually unconsciously, on the reforms brought about with such effort by Vajiranana and his generation, too many of them have lost the spirit of inquiry that illuminates this period of Thai Buddhist reform. Now, the idea that one can investigate the teachings and make up one’s own mind is regarded as a formal heresy (ditthivipatti). Modern Thai Buddhism was formed on the basis that the Vinaya is the authority, not the opinions of the teachers (acariyavada). For much of the modern forest tradition, sadly, the opinions of the teachers has become all that matters, and recourse to the Dhamma and Vinaya of the Buddha is dismissed out of hand.

Comfort or Challenge

Richard Gombrich, one of the most senior academics in Buddhist studies, recently gave a keynote address for the International Conference on Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century held in Salaya, Bangkok, Sep/Oct 2010. It’s a terrific, passionate, and all-too-true article. He had the following to say about the role of women in Theravada Buddhism.

Surely it is plain that if a religion today is to increase it popularity, it will have to appeal to women as least as much as to men. So how does Theravada Buddhism stand?

If one goes by the scriptures and ancient traditions it should be in a very strong position indeed to appeal to women. But it has thrown away its advantages, and this to such an extent that I think it cannot possibly advance in countries where women have achieved social equality.

Let me make three points, all of which I regard as of vast importance both practically and morally.

First: menstruation. While they are fertile, adult women bleed for a couple or a few days every month. In some pre-modern societies this has been regarded as dirty or impure; some have myths that it is the result of an ancient curse. In brahminical tradition strict orthodoxy demands that at that time of the month women be secluded and kept away from sacred objects and observances. This is of course a ritual, not a moral, prohibition. In accordance with his principle, already discussed, that attachment to ritual is a great obstacle to spiritual progress, the Buddha ignored menstruation as irrelevant to his teaching. In Sri Lanka, where the most archaic form of Buddhism is preserved, the concept of menstrual impurity is well known (the Sinhala word for it is killa), but it is equally well known that it has no application in a Buddhist context. A woman who is of an age when she might be menstruating is not debarred from any Buddhist activity, from contact with any Buddhist person or object. In a word, for Buddhism, female impurity does not exist – as it did not for the Buddha.

I don’t know how Thai and Burmese Buddhism came to import the notion of female impurity, but in following it they are going against the Buddha, befuddling themselves with superstition, and in the process insulting women. Of course, most women born into those societies have been brought up to take female impurity for granted and so do not feel insulted; but women who come from abroad, and have for example learnt their Buddhism in Sri Lanka, do feel insulted and repelled.

But secondly, things are even worse than this. In Thailand the Vinaya has been changed in a grotesque manner, so that monks may not only not touch a woman, but may not receive anything directly from a woman’s hand. This innovation applies not only to menstruating women, or to women who are of an age when they might be menstruating, but to all females from babies to centenarians. We are therefore dealing not just with a misguided ritual obsession but with true misogyny, a horror and dread of women, a fear that the slightest contact with a female is seductive and may inspire lust. When this is applied even to babies and young children, the necessary implication is so disgusting that I cannot even name it. Those who created such a rule and those who follow them need to be re-educated and to learn that women and girls are people, not objects.

My third point is much more often talked about. Can Theravāda restart the Bhikkhunī Sangha, the Order of Nuns, after the break in the ordination tradition? There are six extant textual traditions of the Vinaya; the fact that no two of them wholly agree about how nuns are to be ordained, and that we thus cannot be sure that the Theravādin version goes back to the Buddha, or is even the oldest, gives historians a lot to argue about. But when it comes to preserving Theravāda Buddhism, let alone allowing it to flourish, all that is entirely beside the point. If there are women who want to restart a Sangha, why should they be stopped? Should we not thank and congratulate them? What does it matter that the continuity of the ordination ritual has been interrupted? What is that but a ritual? Must we all live in a world of obsessive neurotics? Let people who only care about ritual fuss away to their hearts’ content, and let those who care for the spirit, not the letter, and for living according to the Buddha’s teaching and principles, welcome the one development which, I believe, has the power to preserve Theravāda Buddhism for many future generations.

How, then, can Theravāda Buddhism be disseminated? How can it even be saved? I find the answer obvious. We have to return to the Buddha’s teaching. Our leaders must fearlessly stand up and tell the world that Buddhism is meant to apply to the whole of life, public and private. We have to understand, and act accordingly, that ritual has no intrinsic value and must be jettisoned if it gets in the way of living the Dhamma. We must acknowledge that Buddhism is for all, including foreigners and women: all must be the objects of our love and compassion, just as all are equally responsible moral agents. Yes; we have to take the Buddha seriously!

A Higher Criticism of Archaeology (& some news…)

The last little while I’ve been preparing some books for publication: A Swift Pair of Messengers, which got a new website a few months ago, and soon hopefully will have a a hardcopy to go along. My book on Buddhist mythology, White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes is also, i fervently hope, finally ready for publication. I’m gradually working through my back catalogue, updating and making available my books on WordPress and Lulu. I’m now working on Sects & Sectarianism, and I came across this essay, which is not directly concerned with the themes of S&S, but I kinda liked it, so here it is.

A Higher Criticism of Archaeology

The canonical texts are entirely silent about Aśoka, and do not authorize his interference in the Sangha. This is one of the basic reasons why early generations of Buddhist scholars concluded they were in the main completed before Aśoka. This seems to have escaped certain modern scholars who regard any suggestion of a pre-Aśokan provenance for canonical texts as sheer fantasy. This has led to a worrying decline in the understanding of these sources: if we are to take seriously the claim that the Pali canon cannot be dated before the 5th century, we obliterate the fundamental distinction between text and commentary that has allowed us to make sense of the dizzying collections of Buddhist texts.

Let us take just one example, Lars Fogelin, who has published a recent and excellent description of some early Buddhist monastic sites called Archaeology of Early Buddhism. I must apologize in advance for the crtiticism that follows: it really is a very good book, and I learnt a lot from it. Fogelin tries hard, and usually succeeds, to steer a ‘middle way’ between various extreme approachs, including the text/archaeology divide. But his perspective on Buddhist textual studies is largely derived from Gregory Schopen. I have directly critiqued Schopen’s work elsewhere, but here I am concerned with how his programmatic perspective distorts the writings of those he influences.

Fogelin says: ‘According to the Pali Canon, Ashoka actively proselytized for Buddhism, sending missionaries to Sri Lanka, redistributing relics of the Buddha, and supporting Buddhist monks’. (Fogelin 24) This is of course nonsense: Ashoka is not mentioned anywhere in the Pali canon. Fogelin is confusing the canon and commentaries. The problem is not merely an isolated mistake. Fogelin is  following modern trends in heavily relying on scholars like Schopen, and has inherited the results of his deeply programmatic attempt to undermine the findings of Buddhist textual studies. In this case the attrition of knowledge has proceeded so far that we have lost touch with the most basic of distinctions.

Fogelin speaks of the two phases of western Indological studies: the first phase depicted a rarified and ethereal Buddhism of unworldly spirituality; the inevitable reaction emphasizes the physicality, even worldliness of monastic life. The lonely ascetic hero striving to subdue his passions in the forest has been supplanted; and in his place is a hook-nosed Bhikkhu Fagin, clutching his pot of gold with one claw, while other dispenses ‘relics’ to the exploited masses. Thus the western philosophical Frankenstein of mind/body dualism flourishes in Buddhist studies.

This manifests as an epistemological apartheid, where things we learn from rocks and realia are ‘certain’, while things we learn from texts are ‘assumptions’. I hesitate to preach Buddhism to such confirmed sceptics, but it does rather occur to me that a reading of basic Buddhist epistemological Suttas, such as the Cūḷahatthipadopama Sutta or the Caṅkī Sutta, would serve as a reminder that all conceptual knowledge is based on inference, and as long as ignorance persists in the mind, we can regard nothing as certain.

Fogelin discusses the ‘higher criticism’:

The method, on the surface, is both simple and compelling. Those textual and doctrinal elements that are shared by the disparate textual existing sources are most likely to have the greatest antiquity.’ (Fogelin 38)

Simple, yes, not to say simplistic. I doubt that anyone familiar with the painstaking, detailed, and multi-layered reading that is required by any serious grappling with Buddhist literature would recognize their own work in this description.

Fogelin does admit that: ‘The actual practice of higher criticism is much more complicated than the simple outline presented above.’ But this is in his presentation of the modern critiques of the higher criticism, as if those engaged in the study themselves have no comprehension of the difficulties of their own task.

Fogelin goes on to say:

Despite claims by its proponents, commonalities in Chinese and Sri Lankan texts only demonstrate that the common text existed at an unspecified time prior to the existing texts in the fifth century A. D. There is no reason to believe that this reconstructed Buddhism resembled anything propounded by the Buddha.’ (Fogelin 38)

Such claims again misrepresent the methods of the higher criticism. The basic hypothesis – which is always subject to testing and modification in specific circumstances – is that the postulated ancestor text pre-dated the separation of the existing textual traditions. In Buddhist context, the scriptures are usually found to be associated with a particular school, which preserves its own textual redaction. Thus the common ancestor is hypothesized to belong to a period before the separation of the schools.

Again, while this is far from absolute,  it remains a valid generalization, confirmed by the recent work of Salomon, for example, who shows that the Dharmaguptaka Gandhārī version of the Saṅgīti Sutta is very close to the Dharmaguptaka Dīrgha Āgama version of the same sutta in Chinese, and is less close to the Pali and other Chinese versions. The prevailing view has been that the schismatic period started around the time of Aśoka. Thus the common texts are, on a preliminary basis, assigned to that period. In this work I have questioned the dating of the separations to Aśoka or pre-Aśoka, and have argued for a separative period in the centuries following Aśoka. However, this does not change the hypothetical dating of the scriptural collections: rather, it changes the basis on which the texts were separated. The texts were not separated into distinct sectarian or dogmatic collections until some time after Aśoka; nevertheless, they were clearly separated geographically from the time of Aśoka, perhaps even earlier in some cases.

Fogelin admits that the higher criticism becomes more robust as the schools become further spread out, but claims that the schools lived close to each other in earliest periods. But, as the chances of history would have it, most of our early texts derive from schools located in two places: Kaśmīr/Gandhāra and Sri Lanka. These were established as part of the missions around the Aśokan period, and are at the very opposite peripheries of India, 3000kms apart. It is methodological madness to assume that schools at the polar ends of India primarily derived their common canonical texts from later borrowings.

As  long as the texts are relatively (not totally!) isolated, we may regard their history as primarily (not completely!) separate. The existence of borrowing is a modification of details, but does not change the overall picture, unless it can be demonstrated that borrowing has taken place on a  very large scale. Things fall down according to the law of gravity: I can throw a ball in the air, but I don’t dash off a thesis claiming to have disproved Newton.

While this principle is doubtless important, to suggest it is the sole or main method of textual criticism is highly misleading. In fact, the whole enterprise of modern Buddhist studies, including the general stratification of texts still use use today, was established in the 19th Century by the European Indologists. And in those days, there simply were no comparative studies available. There were a few remarks and occasional translations, but no systematic work on comparing the Chinese or Tibetan scriptures with those in Pali was undertaken until Anesaki and Akanuma in the 20th Century. Not only was the comparative method not the sole method, it was not used at all! What then did they do? Here are some remarks by T. W. Rhys Davids, from his Buddhist India, published in 1902:

As to the age of the Buddhist canonical books, the best evidence is the contents of the books themselves—the sort of words they use, the style in which they are composed, the ideas they express. Objection, it is true, has recently been raised against the use of such internal evidence. And the objection is valid if it be urged, not against the general principle of the use of such evidence, but against the wrong use of it. We find, for instance, that Phallus-worship is often mentioned, quite as a matter of course, in the Mahābhārata, as if it had always been common everywhere throughout Northern India. In the Nikāyas, though they mention all sorts of what the Buddhists regarded as foolish or superstitious forms of worship, this particular kind, Siva-worship under the form of the Linga, is not even once referred to. The Mahābhārata mentions the Atharva Veda, and takes it as a matter of course, as if it were an idea generally current, that it was a Veda, the fourth Veda. The Nikāyas constantly mention the three others, but never the Atharva. Both cases are interesting. But before drawing the conclusion that, therefore, the Nikāyas, as we have them, are older than the existing text of the Mahābhārata, we should want a very much larger number of such cases, all tending the same way, and also the certainty that there were no cases of an opposite tendency that could not otherwise be explained.

On the other hand, suppose a MS. were discovered containing, in the same handwriting, copies of Bacon’s Essays and of Hume’s Essay, with nothing to show when, or by whom, they were written; and that we knew nothing at all otherwise about the matter. Still we should know, with absolute certainty, which was relatively the older of the two; and should be able to determine, within a quite short period, the actual date of each of the two works. The evidence would be irresistible because it would consist of a very large number of minute points of language, of style, and, above all, of ideas expressed, all tending in the same direction.

This is the sort of internal evidence that we have before us in the Pali books. Any one who habitually reads Pali would know at once that the Nikāyas are older than the Dhamma Sangaṇi; that both are older than the Kathā Vatthu; that all three are older than the Milinda. And the Pali scholars most competent to judge are quite unanimous on the point, and on the general position of the Pali literature in the history of literature in India.

But this sort of evidence can appeal, of course, only to those familiar with the language and with the ideas…

So Buddhist studies were established primarily on the basis of the internal evidence of the texts themselves. The next section of Rhys-Davids’ work discusses the epigraphical evidence, which he interprets, surely reasonably, as showing a broad correspondence with the existing texts. While the epigraphic findings do not themselves prove the existence of a closed ‘canon’ in the time of Aśoka, they certainly prove that similar  texts existed. Aśoka’s wording clearly indicates he is presenting a collection extracted from the Buddhavacana, and the demonstrated links between Buddhavacana and Aśokavacana provide further evidence that other canonical texts existed and influenced Buddhist practice. Aśoka was obviously not trying to describe the Buddhist canon, but to select a few specially recommended texts. While the sceptics would try to leap on the absence of a reference to the overall categories of ‘Tipitaka’, etc., as evidence that such things did not exist, the edicts in fact suggest that texts that we now regard as canonical did exist, while texts we now regard as post-canonical did not. Thus, far from undermining the overall picture of the development of Buddhist literature, Aśoka’s inscriptions are perfectly in accord with the findings of the higher criticism.

So the internal evidence of the texts, and comparison with Brahmanical and Jaina literature, is tempered with archaeology, but the direct comparative method is not used.

Practically, the situation has not changed all that much. While there is a small but vigorous circle of scholars pursuing comparative studies, and a tiny group of greats who have mastered a wide range of texts in the Buddhist languages, the reality is that most studies, even today, are based on the texts of only one school or tradition, with occasional references to other traditions, usually based on secondary sources. Comparative study is not a monolithic orthodoxy that needs destroying so that Buddhist studies can get modern, it is a fledgling and undernourished inquiry that needs long years of support before we can truly evaluate its worth.

But, and again this seems to have totally escaped the modern critics, direct comparison of corresponding texts is merely a starting point. Having established a hypothesis that the texts may be pre-Aśokan, we then test this. Do they actually refer to Aśoka? Contra Fogelin, the canonical Pali texts, despite what must have been a great temptation, do not. This suggests that they are pre-Aśokan; moreover, it implies that by the time of Aśoka they were already regarded as in some sense fixed or canonical, so that at the very least blatantly later things were not added, but were reserved for the commentarial or other post-canonical literature. Similarly, though we think the texts were transmitted to Sri Lanka about this time, there is no mention of Sri Lanka in the body of the canonical literature.

Next we might look at the state of doctrinal development evidenced in the texts. As is well known to textual scholars, the canonical Suttas must, in any meaningful inquiry into Buddhist doctrines, be considered fundamental. Doctrinal variation within the early strata exists, but is startlingly minor. Significant development emerges with the class of literature known as Abhidhamma, which must postdate the Sutta literature. But it is not until the latest strata of Abhidhamma literature (as evidenced by doctrine and the testimony of the schools) that we start to see fully articulated sectarian doctrines. Again, much of the philosphical content of the Mahāyāna suttas only makes sense as a reaction to late- and post-canonical Abhidhamma doctrines such as the svabhāva. But the Mahāyāna began around the beginning of the Common Era. Thus we must see the entire course of doctrinal development pre-dating this time. Doctrinal development was slow and inherently conservative, and to allow sufficient time for this complex evolutionary process we find ourselves once more back in the time of Aśoka or earlier.

I have yet to see any attempt by archaeological radicalists to explain how such a situation could exist if we abandon the evolutionary perspective developed by the higher criticism. Perhaps Buddhaghosa wrote his commentaries in the 5th century and deliberately forged a whole body of canonical literature in order to authorize his own doctrines. I am reminded of the fundamentalist Christian argument that God placed dinosaur bones deep in the ground to test our faith in creationism; similarly, it would seem that the conniving Buddhist monks, with a degree of textual sophistication hitherto unknown to humanity, deliberately created a highly stratified literature in order to separate the goats of higher criticism from the sheep  of the archaeological faithful. It would be impolite to point out that, just as textual scholars are supposed to rely on the equation ‘common = older’, archaeologists rely on the equation that ‘lower = older’. Isolated from the complexities of real digging, this is as ludicruous as the caricature of textual crticism we find in the archaeological radicalists. Indeed, Fogelin notes that the received datings for South Asian chronologies has been recently upturned. Back to the drawing board.

Again, we might ask what is the language of the texts? Pali is not the same as the Sinhalese tongue. It is inconceivable that the Sinhalese would have deliberately composed a canon in a foreign language, so they must have brought their scriptures from the mainland, where they were already relatively fixed in a a canonical language. There are a couple of references to Sri Lanka in the late Parivāra, as well as in one colophon in the Cūḷavagga, but these are obviously not part of the basic canonical texts. I am not suggesting that no changes were made in Sri Lanka: there were, but these were minor alterations to a pre-existing mainland literature. The persistence of the scriptures in a non-native tongue is further evidence of an early date for the Pali canon.

I could continue at some length, but perhaps the point has been made, though no doubt it will have to be made again. The conclusions of Buddhist textual studies were not made on the basis of the childish assumptions described by Fogelin and his mentors. They are the outcome of a long, patient, and detailed examination of a vast corpus of texts, scrutinized from every possible angle. Of course this process is imperfect, of course the findings do not always agree, of course we can pick holes in one approach or the other. But the stability of the findings – and in broad outlines, there has been a remarkable degree of stability – is indicative of their substantial and varied foundations. The findings of the archaeological revisionists have not withstood such a test of time.

And indeed, if we are to take the more radical claims seriously, they are distressingly uroboric. Wynne has already pointed out that we often would not know how to interpret the inscriptions without a knowledge of the terminology of the texts. But the problem goes deeper than that. If we are to stick with what we ‘actually know’, we would have to admit that we have no texts earlier than the first centuries C.E. And there are no Pali texts until some time later than that. Schopen has a touching faith in the existence of the Pali canon from the time of Buddhaghosa, since he wrote the commentaries on them: but in fact our information about Buddhaghosa is slim, so we should really push the date back much later.

Clearly, we cannot use evidence for such late texts to refer back to the early period. This, and let us take a deep breath as we prepare to take this seriously, also includes the grammars, without which we could not read Indian languages. Of course, the Hindu writers of the grammars can hardly be regarded as objective scholars, so in utilizing them we may be unconsciously reading later concepts back into the early writings. Thus we cannot even read the inscriptions.

Let alone read them, we cannot even presume that they are writing. There is, after all, a lively debate as to whether the Indus Valley script is a writing system. We note that the Indian Hindutva scholars are the ones who claim to be able to decipher this script, and they are clearly driven by ideology. Could not the same be the case for the early inscriptions? Could not the much later Hindu/Buddhist grammarians have devised a system for reading meaning into arbitrary symbols?

Having sternly forgone the whimsical reliance on later texts, we are left with no notion of what, say, a ‘monastery’ is. Fogelin’s exemplary examination of the sites at Thotlakanda must be entirely redone, removing the text-based, and hence unreal, assumption that we ‘know’ what a monastery is.

In fact, I begin to doubt more and more the possibility of knowing anything at all from Fogelin’s work. All I have is a book: this contains markings that I assume are writing, and that I can decipher according to a symbol-system I learnt as a child. But how does Fogelin use that symbol-system to convey meaning – does meaning not manifest in the dynamic interaction between text and reader? Is Fogelin, then, a reflection of my own dark side, an illegitimate spawn of my repressed fear and doubts regarding the the truth of my own chosen path?

Indeed, in the absence of any actual concrete evidence, we would be better advised to speak of pseudo-Fogelin, the purported writer of a book which appears, on the basis of admittedly incomplete investigations, to be about early Buddhist archaeology. Perhaps the best evidence I have for the existence of pseudo-Fogelin is the undoubted fact that I, Sujato, am writing a critique of his critique of the higher criticism. But, when I see thus set in bald concrete reality the self-referential and self-validating nature of the critical process I am engaged in, I begin to doubt even my own essay.

For my authorship too is an assumption, one which demonstrably flickers in and out of existence with the speed of thought, not bound and solid like a lump of rock, implacable and unimpeachible in being. I am only Sujato when I think of it. And of all the Sujatos in the world today, which one am I? I believe I am the same Sujato who has written several complicated and polemical diatribes on matters of Buddhist practice, doctrines, and texts that are of interest to himself alone. But this is a mere memory, as unreliable as the memories of the monks who, supposedly, were responsible for the oral transmission of the Buddhist scriptures.

Thus, I am forced to admit, in the interests of scholarly precision, that I do not know who I am. Henceforth I will refer to the author of this essay as pseudo-Sujato. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, whose sunglasses – on both his heads – would turn pitch black at the first hint of danger, pseudo-Sujato shall close his eyes at the first hint of uncertainty, taking refuge in the only thing that he really knows for certain: the utter darkness of ignorance.

But a small doubt will not give up its nagging: just what was the point of all this in the first place?

Who owns a monastery in Thai law?

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

Article 8.

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.

Article 9.

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.

Article 10.

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.)

Article 11.

(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.

Article 12

(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.

Article 18.

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

Article 32

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.

Article 33.

Land both belonging to a monastery and under control of a monastery is of the following categories:

  1. Monastery Compound. This means the area wherein various structures of a monastery are situated.
  2. Monastery Estate. This refers to a piece of land belonging to a monastery.
  3. 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.

Article 34.

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.

Article 35.

Monastery Compund and Monastery Estate are properties that are not subject to any enforcement by the Court of Law.

Article 36.

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.

Article 39.

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.