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.

Why Buddhists Should be Vegetarian

The Buddha ate meat. This is a fairly well attested fact. The issue of vegetarianism is addressed a few times in the Suttas, notably the Jivaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. The Buddha consistently affirmed that monastics were permitted to eat meat, as long as it was not killed intentionally for them. There are numerous passages in the Vinaya that refer to the Buddha or the monastics eating meat, and meat is regularly mentioned as one of the standard foods.

For these reasons, the standard position in Theravada Buddhism is that there is no ethical problem with eating meat. If you want to be vegetarian, that is a purely optional choice. Most Theravadins, whether lay or monastic, eat meat, and claim to be acting within the ethical guidelines of the Buddha’s teachings.

This position sits squarely within a straightforward application of the law of kamma, understood as intention. Eating meat involves no intention to do harm. As there is no intention, there is no kamma. As there is no kamma, there is no ethical problem.

The situation in Mahayana is more complicated. Mahayanists, especially in East Asia, embrace vegetarianism, often as a temporary measure for religious events, although the monastics are typically vegetarian all the time. The motivation is, at least in part, an expression of the greater emphasis on compassion in Mahayana. In practice, however, Mahayanists often adopt vegetarianism (as do Hindus) as a rite of purification. This is despite such texts as the Amagandha Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, where the Buddha insists that eating meat is not a source of spiritual impurity. Tibetan monastics, on the other hand, usually eat meat.

Despite the apparently straightforward situation in Theravada, the problem does not go away. For obvious reasons: eating meat requires the killing of animals, and this directly violates the first precept. Eating meat is the direct cause of an immense quantity of suffering for sentient beings. Many people, myself included, struggle with the notion that a religion as categorically opposed to violence as Buddhism can so blithely wave away the suffering inherent in eating meat.

Let’s have a closer look and see if we can discern the roots of this problem. There are a few considerations that I would like to begin with. We live in a very different world today than the Buddha lived in, and Buddhist ethics, whatever else they may be, must always be a pragmatic response to real world conditions.

Animals suffer much more today than they did 2500 years ago. In the Buddha’s time, and indeed everywhere up until the invention of modern farming, animals had a much better life. Chickens would wander round the village, or were kept in a coop. Cows roamed the fields. The invention of the factory farm changed all this. Today, the life of most meat animals is unimaginable suffering. I won’t go into this in detail, but if you are not aware of the conditions in factory farms, you should be. Factory farms get away with it, not because they are actually humane, but because they are so mind-bendingly horrific that most people just don’t want to know. We turn away, and our inattention allows the horror to continue.

The other huge change since the Buddha’s time is the destruction of the environment. We are all aware of the damage caused by energy production and wasteful consumerism. But one of the largest, yet least known, contributors to global warming and environmental destruction generally is eating meat. The basic problem is that meat is higher on the food chain as compared with plants, so more resources are required to produce nutrition in the form of meat. In the past this was not an issue, as food animals typically ate things that were not food for humans, like grass. Today, however, most food animals live on grains and other resource-intensive products. This means that meat requires more energy, water, space, and all other resources. In addition to the general burden on the environment, this creates a range of localised problems, due to the use of fertilisers, the disposal of vast amounts of animal waste, and so on.

One entirely predictable outcome of factory farming is the emergence of virulent new diseases. We have all heard of ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’; but the media rarely raises the question: why are these two new threats derived from the two types of animals that are most used in factory farming? The answer is obvious, and has been predicted by opponents of factory farming for decades. In order to force animals to live together in such overcrowded, unnatural conditions, they must be fed a regular diet of antibiotics, as any disease is immediately spread through the whole facility. The outcome of this, as inevitable as the immutable principles of natural selection, is the emergence of virulent new strains of antibiotic resistant diseases. In coming years, as the limited varieties of antibiotics gradually lose their efficacy, this threat will recur in more and more devastating forms.

So, as compared with the Buddha’s day, eating meat involves far more cruelty, it damages the environment, and it creates diseases. If we approach this question as one of weights and balance, then the scales have tipped drastically to the side of not eating meat.

Sometimes in Theravada vegetarianism is slighted, as it is traditionally associated with the ‘5 points’ of Devadatta. Devadatta wanted to prove he was better than the Buddha, so he asked the Buddha to enforce five ascetic practices, such as only accepting alms food, live all their lives in the forest, and so on. These practices are regarded as praiseworthy, and Devadatta’s fault was not in promoting these as such, but in seeking to make them compulsory. Stories of the Buddha’s childhood emphasize how compassionate he was compared to Devadatta’s cruelty to animals, perhaps because of Devadatta’s asscoiation with vegetarianism. So rather than deprecating the vegetarians as ‘followers of Devadatta’, one could infer from this passage that vegetarianism, like the other practices, was praiseworthy, but the Buddha did not wish to make it compulsory.

To argue in such a way, however, is clutching at straws. There is a wider problem, and I think the discussions of the issue among Buddhists generally avoid this. And the wider issue is this: meat eating is clearly harmful. That harm is a direct but unintended consequence of eating meat. Since there is no intention to cause harm, eating meat is not bad kamma. There are therefore two logical possibilities: eating meat is ethical; or kamma is not a complete account of ethics.

Let us look more closely at this second possibility. The notion that actions should not be done, even when they involve no harmful intention, is found constantly in the Vinaya. For example, a monk is criticised for baking bricks that have small creatures in them, even though he was unaware of them and did not intend any harm. The Buddha laid down a rule forbidding this.

In another case, the Buddha laid down a rule that a monastic must inquire about the source of meat before accepting it. The context of this rule was that someone had offered human flesh (their own – it’s a long story!) and this rule is usually said to only apply if one has doubts as to whether the food is human flesh. But that is not what the rule states – it simply says that one should inquire as the the source of the meat, and that it is an offence to eat meat without doing so. Needless to say, this rule is ignored throughout Theravada.

These are a couple of examples in the context of causing harm to beings. There are many others. Indeed, there are several Vinaya rules that were laid down in response to the actions of arahants. An arahant cannot act in an intentionally harmful manner, so these rules cannot be taken to imply that the motivation behind the acts was wrong. The acts have unintended harmful consequences, and this is why they are prohibited.

In this sense, if the Vinaya pertains to sila, or ethics, then the scope of sila is broader than the scope of kamma. This is, when you think about it, common sense. Kamma deals only with intention and the consequences of intentional action. This is critical because of its place in the path to liberation. We can change our intentions, and thereby purify our minds and eventually find release from rebirth. That is the significance of kamma to us as individuals.

But ethics is not just a matter of individual personal development. It is also a social question, or even wider, an environmental question in the broad sense. How do we relate to our human and natural context in the most positive and constructive way?

I am suggesting that, while kamma deals with the personal, ethics includes both the personal and the environmental.

As well as broadening ethics in this way, I would suggest we should deepen it. Ethics is not just what is allowable. Sure, you can argue that eating meat is allowable. You can get away with it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. What if we ask, not what can I get away with, but what can I aspire to?

When we recite the first precept, we say, ‘I undertake the training to refrain from killing living beings’. This is a challenge, and in itself is a powerful ethics. Yet it is merely a short summary of a principle. It was never meant to fully describe the virtue of harmlessness. When the Buddha spoke of this precept in more detail, this is what he had to say:

Having abandoned the taking of life, refraining from the taking of life, one dwells without violence, with the knife laid down, scrupulous, full of mercy, trembling with compassion for all sentient beings.

This is not just an ethic of allowability. It doesn’t merely set a minimum standard. It calls us out, asking us to aspire to a higher sense of compassion, an ethic that deeply feels for the welfare of all beings. More than just asking, ‘Does this act come from an intention to harm’, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this act the best I can possibly do to promote the welfare of all?’ Rather than simply escaping bad kamma, we create good kamma.

One obvious criticism of this approach is that being vegetarian does not mean you don’t cause harm. We hurt beings in many unintentional way, driving cars, buying products, almost everything we do. If we follow this principle to its logical conclusion, we end up with Jainism, and will have to walk everywhere with a cloth over our mouth to keep the flies from dying, and a soft broom to brush the creatures away. (Note, though, that even the Jains have a complex relationship with vegetarianism.) It is simply arbitrary to identify meat eating as the cause of harm. This is, after all, the point of the well-known (though apocryphal) story of Siddhattha as a young boy, seeing the plough turning up the soil, killing some worms, and leaving the others to be picked off by the crows. Even eating rice involves the unintentional destruction of life. The only solution is to get off the wheel.

The problem with this argument is that it confuses the existential with the ethical. On an existential level, quite right, any form of life, even the most scrupulous, will inevitably cause harm to some beings. This is one of the reasons why the only final solution is escape from rebirth altogether. Yet meanwhile, we are still here. Ethics is not concerned with the ultimate escape from all suffering, but with minimising the harm and maximising the benefit we can do right here. It is relative and contextual. Sure, being vegetarian or vegan we will still cause harm. And sure, there are boundary issues as to what is really vegetarian (Honey? Bees are killed. Sugar? Animal bones are used for the purification process… )

But the fact that we can’t do everything does not imply that we shouldn’t do this thing. The simple fact is that eating meat cause massive and direct harm to many creatures. That harm is, almost always, easily avoidable. Becoming vegetarian does not involve any huge sacrifices or moral courage. It just takes a little restraint and care. This is even more so today, when there is a wide range of delicious, cheap, nutritious vegetarian foods available. The choice of becoming vegetarian is, of all moral choices we can make, one of the most beneficial, at the smallest cost to ourselves.

To return to the basic problem. As Buddhists, we expect that the Buddha kept the highest possible ethical conduct. And for the most part, he did. So if the Buddha allowed something, we feel there can’t be anything wrong with it. There is nothing dogmatic or unreasonable about such an expectation. When we read the Suttas and the Vinaya, we find again and again that the Buddha’s conduct was, indeed, of the highest order.

How then, if meat eating is an inferior ethical standard, can it be that the Buddha did it? This is the crux of the matter. And I don’t have an easy answer.

Part of it is to do with the nature of the mendicant life. The Buddha and his disciples wandered from house to house, simply accepting whatever was offered. It’s hard to refuse offerings given in such a spirit. Yet this answer is incomplete, as there are many foods, including several types of meat, that are prohibited in the Vinaya. Clearly the monastics were expected to have some say over what went into their bowls.

There are other considerations I could raise. But I don’t want to press the textual argument too far. In the end, we have a partial, and partially understood record of the Buddha’s life and teachings. For those of us who have been blessed enough to have encountered the Dhamma, we have found it to be an uplifting and wise guide to life.

And yet: we cannot let our ethical choices be dictated by ancient texts. Right and wrong are too important. The scriptures do not contain everything, and do not answer every question. As Buddhists, we take the texts seriously, and do not lightly discard their lessons. Yet there is a difference between learning from scripture and submitting to it.

There are some things that the scriptures simply get wrong. The Suttas make no critique of slavery, for example, and yet for us this is one of the most heinous of all crimes.

Why are these things as they are? I don’t know. I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to studying and understanding the Buddhist scriptures, and in almost all things of importance I find them to be impeccable. But my study has also shown me the limits of study. We cannot access the truth through scripture. We can only access certain ideas. Our understanding and application of those ideas is of necessity imperfect. There is always something left over.

This being so, it is unethical to cite scripture as a justification for doing harm. If eating meat is harmful and unnecessary, it remains so whatever the texts say. Our sacred texts are sacred, not because they determine what is right and wrong, but because they inform our choices and help us to do better.

The principle of harmlessness underlies the very fabric of the Dhamma, and if its application in this context is problematic, the principle itself is not in question. It simply means our scriptures are imperfect, and the practice of ethics is complex and messy. But we knew that already. It is not out of disrespect that we make our choice, but out of respect for the deeper principles of compassion and harmlessness.

Bhikkhuni Ordination at Spirit Rock

Better late than never. After being one of the most vocal supporters of bhikkhuni ordination, I unaccountably omitted blogging about the recent bhikkhuni ordination at Spirit Rock, California. My apologies to all, I beg the Triple Gem of excuses: busyness, disorganizationedness, and illness (a bout of flu hit Santi a month ago – yes, we’re all recovering, thanks!).

On October 17, three nuns took full ordination: Venerables Anandabodhi, Santacitta, and Nimmala. Congratulations to all those who took part, and especially to the three new bhikkhunis!

Venerables Anandabodi, Santacitta, and Nimmala receive full ordination

You can see details of the ordination here, photos here, messages from the nuns and the community here, and watch the video slideshow below.

Also, check out the film project on bhikkhuni ordination by Wiriya and Katrina – we’ll keep you posted as this develops.

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

Gangraped Nepal nun now faces expulsion from nunnery

The Times of India reports a harrowing story of violence and ignorance. Please read it first before coming back to this post.



This story is shocking: for a woman, from a powerless and disadvantaged background, who has chosen to live a life of simplicity in accord with the precepts of her religion, to be so abandoned by those who should be protecting her.

This story is by no means unique. I have heard of such cases many times. The rejection and denial by the Buddhist authorities in such cases only fuels more attacks. The nuns know that if they are raped they will be expelled, so they do not report the attacks, and men come to know that they can rape nuns with impunity.

The Nepalese Buddhist authority says that such cases never came up in the Buddha’s time, and appears to be arguing that one has to be a virgin to be ordained. This is an astonishing level of ignorance – repeatedly refuted in the comments to the article (the blog commenters know more about Buddhism than the authorities…). Half an hour with a Vinaya book would have showed him that rape did in fact occur in the Buddha’s lifetime, and the Buddha was very clear: there is no offence for the victim, and the perpetrator has committed one of the most heinous crimes possible.

But it’s not the factual mistake that is the real worry: it’s the disturbing way that a half-baked allusion to a mythical past somehow acts as a blanket excuse for such unfeeling dismissal. Supposedly ‘Buddhist’ ideas are being used to diminish compassion and justify cruelty.

Rape is no surprise. It is, shamefully, a part of human life everywhere. The incidence of violent crimes against women is horrific, no matter where or when you live. But there are things that can be done about it, starting with identifying that the rapist is the criminal, and he should be punished, not the victim.

It is a long road, and there is no simple solution. As people committed to Buddhism as a spiritual path, we need to recognize the close links between the status of women in the Sangha and the wider picture of violence to women. If the patriarchs of a religion treat women like this, how can they expect to set an example for the rest of society? The outcome of the consistent denial of women’s equality and refusal to recognize the fullness of women’s humanity is all too predictable. Recent figures from the UN reveal that over 60% of men in Thailand think it is sometimes justifiable to beat your wife, a figure that is second worst in the world.

Now Thailand has a female Prime Minister. Yingluck said in an interview that there is equality for women in Thailand; this is true in law, but far from true in practice. Hopefully her presence will do some good.

We need to get over surprise and denial. Rape and violence against women is a sign of a mind that is sick. But such minds do not exist in isolation. They emerge from a culture where women are routinely objectified, denigrated, regarded as lesser – the Tibetan word for woman means ‘inferior birth’.

Denigration of women runs deep in Buddhist culture: it is there in the absence of women’s voices, in the texts that speak of women as ‘black snakes’, in the refusal to allow women ordination, in the persecution of those who speak up about discrimination, in the routine beatings in homes of ‘good Buddhists’, in the abominable trade in sex slaves in Buddhist countries, in the silence of the patriarchs on women’s issues, in the monopolization of resources and information by men, in menstruation and other taboos on women’s bodies, in the meditations on the ‘repulsiveness’ of female bodies, in the patronizing control rules of the garudhammas or Amaravati’s ‘Five Points’, in the inane locker-room talk of Buddhist men, in the routine externalization of male desire projected as emanating from the feminine, in the denigration of concern for women as ‘Western feminism’. And it is there, in its most brutal and pure form, in the gang rape and subsequent rejection of a young nun from the lowest class of society.

Not that this is in any way a ‘Buddhist’ problem. It is a human problem, which finds expression in just about every form of human culture. Western culture demeans and reduces women in its own ways, but until we get our act together we can’t hope to help others.

I’ve been through a slow, uncertain, and sometimes agonizing internal process. I gradually came to recognize how I was participating in the sexism of the Sangha culture I had joined, and started trying to untie it bit by bit, and to do what I can to help others. It is not obvious; it is a corruption deeply embedded in culture and language, and it erupts in feverish emotion whenever the pattern of denial is challenged.

The more I raised the question to consciousness, the more I realized how bizarre it all is. To treat or think of women as in any way ‘evil’ or ‘lesser’ is to regard half of humanity as somehow built wrong. It is as absurd as to criticize the sky for being inadequate, or the earth for being wrong. We need to stop participating in this madness. We need to speak out. We need to stop complying. We need to act.

UPDATE: The Nepal Buddhist Federation, who’s representative is quoted in the article, appears to be a legitimate body which is doing good work in Nepal. If you’d like to help go to their website and leave them a message asking them to reconsider their policy regarding nuns who have been raped. Here’s the message I left:

I am writing concerning the recent article in the Times of India concerning a nun who was gang raped and subsequently expelled from her monastery. A representative of your organization was quoted as saying that a nun who has been raped cannot continue to be a nun. This is not true: the 1st parajika offence for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis is only for consensual intercourse. In addition, it is not a compassionate and helpful attitude, which as you can see from the many comments to the article, has caused a great deal of criticism of Buddhism. I humbly beg you to reconsider your policy and urge that nuns who are the victims of such heinous crimes be accepted and cared for in their communities.

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.

Healing the fallout from the Bhikkuni ordination

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

Healing the fallout from the Bhikkuni ordination

Dennis Sheppard
President BSWA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monks in Suits

‘When ordinary people praise the Buddha, they do so only on the trivial and petty grounds of mere behavior.’
The Buddha, Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 1

In recent days there’s been considerable discussion among Buddhists, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, over the conferring of the respected title ‘Datuk’ to the senior monk Venerable Dhammaratana, abbot of the Brickfields Temple in KL. The controversy is not over the honor, but over the fact that the Venerable received it wearing a suit!

A bit strange, I think. I’ve lived in Malaysia for over a year, and i can’t imagine anyone, including the Malaysian royalty, expecting a monk to wear anything other than his traditional robes. After all, the officials at the ceremony were wearing traditional Malaysian garb, not suits. I’ve met three Prime Ministers and the Queen of England, and it never occurred to me to wear anything other than the same robe I wear every day.

But what’s stranger to me is the emotional reaction of some Malaysian Buddhists. The Young Buddhists Association of Malaysia (YBAM), one of the most important central organizations, said, ‘We were deeply saddened by the failure of Ven. Dhammaratana to set a good example in upholding the dignity of Buddhism.’ The Buddhist Channel published an article where the author Siriminda said: ‘I am disturbed and horrified to know that the venerable donned a complete lay suit to in the investiture ceremony.’

These articles, and others, were careful to acknowledge their pride as Buddhists and respect for the fact that the Venerable had received such an award. But there is no mistaking their very serious concern for the idea of such a senior monk not wearing robes. This is seen as an affront to one of the core symbols of Buddhism.

According to Vinaya, wearing lay clothes is a minor offence, although what this exactly means is not entirely clear. After all, the robes that monastics wore in those days wear, in point of fact, the same as lay clothes, except for the distinctive color and the patchwork pattern.

As with so many other things, the Vinaya issue is a distraction here. Monks break far more rules than this every day and no-one bats an eyelid. The real issue is the robe as a symbols of the Sangha, part of the Triple Gem.

The Venerable is by no means the first bhikkhu to don lay clothes. The respected German monk Ven. Nyanaponika would, so I am told, wear a brown suit when he returned to Germany, as the robs were unknown in his country. It is quite common in the west for Tibetan monastics to wear lay clothes to go to work, then put the robes on when they return to the temple. This is an unfortunate consequence of the lack of support for Tibetan monastics in the west.

In the Brahmajala Sutta I quoted from above, the Buddha makes a strong point about how people will tend to blame or criticize based on trivial details of external behaviour, ignoring that which is of true value. The Buddha was very clear on this, and always kept a sense of ethical perspective. Sadly, we Buddhists have become so attached to the externals of our religion that we tend to judge and condemn someone who has spent a life in service to the Dhamma based on such a trivial thing.

We forget: there is nothing immoral about wearing a suit. It doesn’t harm anyone. There are real, genuine moral issues facing us every day, and we as Buddhists get used to simply living as if they passed us by. But a suit! Now, that’s something to get ‘horrified’ by.

When I see Ven. Dhammaratana wearing a suit I don’t get horrified or saddened. I think, well that’s unusual. I wonder what the circumstances were that caused him to make that choice? And that’s about all it deserves.

The real take-home message of this little kerfluffle is something quite different. What we are seeing is a Muslim raja presenting an award for public service to a Buddhist monk. Just think: in how many countries in the world could something like this happen? The Malaysian people have built a society where interfaith relations are so good that this can happen, and no-one even bothers to notice.

We hear a constant narrative about Muslim ‘extremists’, about Islamic intolerance for other faiths. This honoring of a Buddhist by a Muslim should be an occasion to celebrate. Malaysians should be proudly saying to the world, ‘Look, this can happen!’ Instead, we show the world that all we care about is a suit.

And why has it happened? It is because of decades of work by leaders such as Ven Dhammaratana and his mentor K Sri Dhammananda, who have built a solid foundation for faith relations in Malaysia. I myself witnessed Ven K Sri Dhammananda’s efforts in this regard, and it was one of the things that inspired me to take an interest in interfaith in Australia.

One of the most salient aspects of the late K Sri Dhammananda’s approach to Buddhism was that he kept it real. He told a story once of how a woman in an airport dropped her handbag off a balcony. He was below, he picked it up and brought it to her. She said, ‘I didn’t think monks could touch a woman’s possessions!’ And he said, ‘I didn’t do it as a monk, I did it as a human being.’ When the Chief Rev told that story in KL, there was a spontaneous applause.

Another story. When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, he commented on the fact that Buddhists around the world had responded very calmly, without getting upset at the destruction of such a magnificent symbol of Buddhism. And he said, again to applause, ‘And that’s real Buddhism.’

Another time he spoke of when he was a young monk in KL, how he would get just so hungry sometimes in the afternoon – but the Buddhists wouldn’t give him anything to eat, because monks shouldn’t eat in the afternoon. Only the Muslims, responding to him as a human being, not as a symbol, would give him a snack.

It is this attitude, this insistence on humanity as the core of Buddhism, not external behaviors and symbols, that inspired K Sri Dhammananda’s mission, which as all Malaysians know, is the foundation of modern Malaysian Buddhism.

His approach is not the strictest. But it has a flexibility and a sincerity that has allowed Buddhist to flourish in a majority Muslim country, during a time when so many other countries have been overtaken by the spectre of fundamentalism. Perhaps it is this very flexibility, this concern for the other, that lay behind Ven Dhammaratana’s decision.

I can only imagine that wearing lay clothes would feel very strange and uncomfortable. Stepping out, knowing the judgments that others will make. I can’t imagine that he did this for himself. I can only assume he was thinking of what was best for the occasion, to be as gracious and considerate as possible for his host.

As a monk, and even more so, as a human being, Ven. Dhammaratana deserves the benefit of the doubt, not harsh judgments. Let us not forget his role in making Malaysian Buddhism what it is: a diverse, vibrant, relevant community that has helped build and sustain Malaysia as a successful multi-faith nation.

The Ironic Assumptions of Gregory Schopen

The methods and assumptions of Buddhist text-critical studies have come under challenge, indeed frontal assault, by the influential academic Gregory Schopen. His writings are deliberately provocative and sometimes brilliant. His basic approach in understanding Indian Buddhism may be summed up as a change in method, leading to different results.

In method, he criticizes the assumption of modern scholars that the study of Buddhism may be equated with the study of its texts, and instead proposes that the archaeological evidence should be granted priority. I think all would agree that he has a point here, but it is not obvious to me that previous scholars have been so negligent in this regard. As just one random example, Lamotte’s discussion of King Milinda occupies about seven pages.i The first three pages mainly survey the evidences of the coins and other material evidence, summed up as ‘as few fragmentary inscriptions’; the next three pages discuss the Milindapañha, an important work of the Middle Period preserved in Chinese and Pali; and the final page mentions a few references in later works. This seems reasonable to me; if anything I would have liked to see more discussion of some of the philosophical points raised in the Milindapañha, whose stance tends to be intermediate between the canonical doctrines and the developed positions of the schools.

As far as the results of research are concerned, Schopen says that the record of the bones and stones depicts a very different type of Buddhist monastic, one who is more worldly and human than the caricature of the ascetic hero striving for Nibbana alone in the forest. Since Schopen’s work constitutes the most influential and sustained critique of the kind of project undertaken in this book, it is worth considering his claims in some detail. If we weather this storm, we’ll be ready for anything.

Many of Schopen’s conclusions, I think, are obviously true. He is primarily interested in the ‘Middle Period’ of Indian Buddhism, that is, the five hundred years or so from the beginning of the Common Era. He uses the remnants of monasteries, stupas, graves, etc., together with Vinaya material, primarily from the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya in Tibetan (he makes little use of the Chinese sources), which he says stems from the same period and depicts much the same activity. These sources speak to us of monks and nuns who accumulate wealth, make substantial donations from their own wealth for building projects, promote devotional activity such as worship of stupas, images, and relics, are engaged in business transactions, contracts, and lending on interest, and are frequently at the beck and call of the lay followers for performance of rituals such as weddings, house blessing, and so on. All of this picture is quite convincing and needs little discussion here.

But while it is obviously true, I would also contend that it is truly obvious. All the activities that Schopen depicts may be plainly seen in the activities of the majority of the ordained Sangha in all traditions in the present day. Schopen merely points out that these conditions also obtained in the Middle Period of Indian Buddhism as well. While this may come as a surprise to academics with little contact with Buddhism in the real world, and constitutes an important critique of the fallacy of equating Buddhism with the idealized portrait in the sacred texts, it will come as no surprise for those of us who encounter Buddhism in the world every day.

Another of Schopen’s arguments that is well taken is that the average monk or nun, not to speak of the lay followers, may hardly even know of the scriptural texts. The scriptures may have only been known to a small elite of scholars, and the ideas therein might not be representative of the range of Buddhists. A few years ago I was staying in a forest hut belonging to a devoted, intelligent Thai Buddhist, who, when he was young, had been in robes for two and a half years. Once I visited a local monastery and borrowed copies of some of the Suttas. When I mentioned it to my friend, he looked absolutely blank: he had never even heard the words ‘Majjhima Nikāya’ or ‘Dīgha Nikāya’. Again it seems plausible that this situation, observable today, could have obtained two thousand years ago in India. But the argument should not be overstated. The Buddhist scriptures are big works. They must have required a substantial organization of monk-&-nun power to maintain, whether in oral form or even in the later written form, and so a large number of people must have known them. The number of inscriptions from ancient India is only a few thousand, and so can only represent a tiny fraction of scraps of ideas of all the Indian Buddhists. And those who are wealthy enough to donate religious monuments are hardly likely to be representative of the full spectrum of the Buddhist community. Anyway, as Schopen emphasizes, many of the donors are monks and nuns (according to Schopen, most of the donors are monastic, and in the Middle period, about half the monastics are nuns) who state that they are versed in the ‘Suttas’ or ‘Vinaya’ or ‘Tripiṭaka’ or ‘Nikāyas’; in other words, they are the same people as those who passed down the scriptures.

Schopen is scathing in his assessment of the ‘assumptions’ made by various Buddhist scholars. He characterizes the work of early, Victorian, scholars such as Oldenberg and Rhys Davids as ‘protestant’, and suggests that they have read their own biases into the Buddhist texts, depicting the Buddha and his Sangha much like rational, cultured European gentlemen.

This, too, is true, but it is hardly a valid criticism. Anyone familiar with Buddhist thought should accept that our understanding is always coloured by our beliefs and values. Fine, let’s point this out – but let’s not assume that we are an exception. I am a forest monk, and I believe that the Buddha and his early generations of ordained disciples were also forest monks and nuns. So when I look at the heritage of Buddhism, I naturally focus on this aspect.

Gregory Schopen is a highly paid academic from an overwhelmingly materialistic society, and so when he looks at the heritage of Buddhism he sees money, rocks, and material remains. When he does look at the texts – as any scholar, whatever their beliefs, must eventually do, for the information contained in the inscriptions is scanty – he focuses on the Vinayas, since they deal most directly with the material aspects of monastic life – buildings, etc. But the Vinayas themselves represent a movement from the spiritual to the material – they are about what monks and nuns do when they misbehave, and so taken by themselves they are misleading. We would not expect to gain an accurate vision of how an ordinary person leads their daily life today by reading law books.

Schopen contrasts the wealthy, developed monasteries with the poor, simple villages nearby. His agenda is, in the broadest sense, Marxist. I do not mean that in the slightest pejorative sense – I think it’s sweet that he dedicates his books to the ‘working men and women’ whose ‘labor paid for my scholarly leisure’. But he has little interest in the spiritual aspect of Buddhism, which puts him in a minority of those, at any time, who wish to learn the Dhamma.

It should be obvious that Schopen’s assumptions influence his conclusions, just as the assumptions of earlier scholars influence their conclusions. Wholesome states of mind leave no scar on the rocks. Meditation attainments are airily ephemeral. Insights into reality happen in the wispy world of the mind. If we were to accept Schopen’s methods unconditionally, we would have to abandon the very reason that most of us became interested in Buddhism. There would be no more reason to study ancient India than any other ancient culture. This may not be a problem for Schopen, but it is a big one for most students of Buddhism.

My primary interest is in spiritual practice, and my interest in the Ᾱgama Suttas stems from this: they describe a spiritual practice that I find inspiring, practical, and profound. I have tried, to my limited best, to live up to the ideals taught in that literature, and have invariably found that, when problems arise, they are due to my own inadequacies, not those of the teachings. I have also had close contact with a number of human beings whose inner radiance testified to the power of the Dhamma when lived to its fullest. Since this tradition that I belong to claims to stem from a genuine historical individual called the Buddha, it is important to investigate what truth there might be to this claim.

Schopen’s work contains much that is interesting and informative, but little that could be called inspiring. His writing is characterized by wit, scandal, and good yarns. Unfortunately, it is not always characterized by consistency, and we should examine some of his fracture lines. He rests his arguments heavily on the authority of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, a text he cheerfully admits to not having fully read. This Vinaya is ‘monstrous’ in size, perhaps 4000 folios in the Tibetan, and most scholars have taken it to be late, perhaps 500 C.E. Schopen would like to see this Vinaya dated earlier, around the beginning of the Common Era. On the other hand, the Theravāda Vinaya has been taken by most scholars to be early, but Schopen would also like to date that around the beginning of the Common Era. Thus the battle-lines are drawn. Schopen says that the discussion of the date of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya has been:

‘badly misdirected by a very red herring and the inattention of those who are supposed to be following the trail. In 1958 the great Belgian scholar Etienne Lamotte declared that this Vinaya, or code, was late, that “one cannot attribute to this work a date earlier than the 4th – 5th centuries of the Christian Era.” This pronouncement – even at its inception based on very shaky grounds – still proved almost fatal, for Lamotte was forced by his own further work to change his position – and he did so several times – but few scholars seem to have noticed. By 1966, Lamotte was in fact referring to the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya as a source of information for the first or second century of our era. Ironically, other scholars then, and for a long time after, continued to quote only the Lamotte of 1958.’ii

I must also confess inattention, for I have not followed the trail of Lamotte’s arguments and so must declare my incompetence to pronounce on the date of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. It might be noticed in passing, though, that the two positions ascribed to Lamotte in this passage are not necessarily contradictory. Given the evidently long period it would take to compile a vast compendium like the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, it is not unreasonable to maintain that the final redaction was in the 4th – 5th centuries C.E., but that it contains material inherited from a much earlier time. In fact, something of this sort could be said for almost all Buddhist literature. This is a phenomenon known as ‘intratextuality’, the ongoing life of a given text through a particular stream of tradition, which reflects the conservative nature of religious literature: the redactors valued ancient authority over creative expression and thus tended to work with material already to hand rather than inventing new material.iii In any case, there is nothing ‘ironical’ in the failure of some writers to notice Lamotte’s change of views: if scholars continue to quote from earlier, discredited theories this is a mistake, not an irony.

An example of true irony could be better seen from Schopen’s own work. In the same book as the above quote, he says this:

‘… this literature, the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, is itself considered by many to be late – Lamotte, for example, thinks it is the latest of the vinayas and says “we cannot attribute to this work a date earlier than the fourth-fifth centuries of the Christian Era” …’iv

Note that here Schopen says that Lamotte ‘thinks’ (present tense), thus precluding any later change of mind. This clanger needs little comment, apart from reminding us that Schopen, like the rest of us, is sometimes guilty of seeing what he wants to see.

While I am not competent to date the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, I must say that the passages quoted by Schopen himself frequently give me the impression of lateness. The elaborateness of the text may be partly explained, as Schopen argues, by cultural or other factors rather than by date, but the examples he gives fall well short of establishing this. As for specifics, we notice that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya frequently mentions books and writing, while the Theravāda Vinaya mentions them rarely. This was one of the classic reasons the early European Buddhist scholars concluded (not ‘assumed’) the Theravāda was earlier, and as far as I can see the argument still holds good. Similar considerations apply when we see that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya refers to worship of Shiva and Vishnu, while, as is well known, these deities are virtually unknown in the Theravāda canon. Schopen also argues that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya evidences the influence of the Hindu Dharmaśāstras (legal codes), while the Theravāda does not. He says that this may be explained by the lack of influence of the Dharmasastras in Sri Lanka, and is therefore evidence that the Theravāda Vinaya was composed in Sri Lanka. While I agree, for other reasons, that the Theravāda Vinaya shows some minor Sri Lankan influence, I don’t think this particular argument is very convincing. The Dharmaśāstras themselves evidently date from well after the Buddha’s time, and the situation might as well or better be explained by the simple hypothesis that most of the material in the Pali was composed in India before the Dharmaśāstras became influential, and, because of the unimportance of the Dharmaśāstras in Sri Lankan culture, the Theravāda Vinaya did not have to be extensively revised.

Another target of Schopen’s critique is the vagueness or ambiguity of some Vinaya rules, which he suggests may have been deliberate.v It seems that the poor old Vinaya just can’t win: if it is definitive, it is rigid, and if it is flexible it is decadent. Again we might compare this with one of Schopen’s own little ‘ironies’:

‘In most cases, we can place the Vinayas we have securely in time: the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya that we know was translated was translated into Chinese at the beginning of the fifth century (404-405 C.E.). So were the Vinayas of the Dharmaguptakas (408), the Mahīśāsakas (423-424), and the Mahāsaṅghikas (416). The Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was translated into both Chinese and Tibetan still later, and the actual contents of the Pali Vinaya are only knowable from Buddhaghosa’s fifth century commentaries.’vi

Does this remarkable assertion assume that the date of a text may be determined by knowing the date of its translation or commentary? That would certainly solve a lot of problems: I have beside me a translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya dated 2000 C.E., so we can place that ‘securely in time’. Of course, the phrase is so vague – deliberately? – that Schopen escapes actually asserting that the dates of composition of the Vinayas may be determined from their translation or commentary. If that was the case, however, we would have to conclude, contrary to Schopen’s position, that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was later than the others, for its translation was later. Regarding the Theravāda Vinaya, it has been accepted, so far as I know, by all the scholars who have looked into the matter that Buddhaghosa was primarily a translator and editor, who worked with material stemming from a much older time, no later than 100 – 200 C.E. If the commentarial material dates from then, the Vinaya itself must be considerably earlier.vii

An important part of Schopen’s argument is that there is little or no early – pre-Common Era – evidence for Buddhist monasteries of the developed sort that are depicted in the Vinayas. This is, for him, a sign that the Vinayas were compiled in the ‘Middle Period’. He notes that the words vihāra and āvāsa, which are commonly used of monasteries, really mean little more than ‘dwelling’, and give us little information about what kind of institution is being discussed.viii

However he neglects to notice that the main terms used of a monastery in the Pali Suttas are vana (woodland grove) and ārāma (park); the fact that they are used together in the name of the most famous monastery of all (‘Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park’) suggests that they may be synonyms. These, of course, have a much more specific meaning – evidently the main form of Buddhist monasticism in the Suttas was the forest monastery.

Even today, the typical forest monastery consists of small huts or caves scattered through the forest, with a larger wooden sala for communal activities, and some buildings for stores, kitchen, etc. Such an institution would leave little or no evidence for an archaeologist to uncover.

Schopen does not consider the possibility of a ‘middle way’ between the large, institutionalized vihāras that are such a feature of the archaeological record of Buddhism, and the life of the lonely sage in the forest. It would seem that the forest monastery offers such a ‘middle way’. Forest monasteries can evolve to a high degree of sophistication in their internal organization, such as is described in the Vinayas, and usually have a high regard for authentic practice of the Vinaya. They often do not engage in large building projects, not because they do not have the resources or the know-how – forest monks are often more educated and better supported than the city monks – but because they want to live simply.

This is just a suggestion, and more careful work on the Vinayas – including the Chinese – has to be done to see if this suggestion has any cogence. It is obviously tenuous to draw such parallels between Buddhist practice in such far-distant times and places. But Schopen himself draws many instructive parallels between practice in Buddhist and Christian monasticism, which would seem to be no less distant. And as I have noted above, many of Schopen’s more acceptable findings do find clear parallels in contemporary Buddhism.

Schopen dismisses the ‘perishable materials’ argument for the lack of early monasteries, saying that the earliest archaeological evidence we do possess shows us a monastery in the time of Asoka that is ‘poor and unimpressive’, ‘crudely made of “rubble”.’ix He asserts that: ‘the earliest extant remains of monastic residential architecture, like the earliest cult images in stone, show a tradition still struggling, in this case towards order, still lacking a sense of functional organization and structured use of space. Such a tradition – again like that which produced the early extant cult images – does not suggest a long period of development or directed experimentation in wood or other perishable materials preceding it.’x

But this argument is also circumvented by the forest monastery hypothesis – when living in widely scattered dwellings in the forest it is not necessary to develop such a structured sense of space. What seems to be happening here is that the monastics are, for the first time, living in close proximity. This might be due to a number of factors – perhaps there were too many Buddhist monastics in that period. But some of the early sites mentioned by Schopen also share another significant feature: the monastic dwellings are near a stupa. This might suggest that these are the first monasteries for whom the devotional practices described by Schopen are becoming important.

What is perhaps more relevant for our current purposes, however, is that this argument exposes yet another of Schopen’s ‘ironies’. He assumes that the emergence of sophisticated architecture or fine arts requires a substantial prior period of development – a most reasonable assumption. But is not the same the case in literature? Schopen wants to put very sophisticated literary tracts like the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya in the early Middle Period. But surely such works must have required a lengthy evolution. Similarly, we know for certain (from the dates recorded for the Chinese translations) that the earliest Mahāyāna Sūtras date from no later than the beginning of the Common Era. These too are sophisticated literary and philosophical products, which are, to a large degree, a critical response to some aspects of the early schools, especially the (Sarvāstivāda) Abhidhamma philosophy, and also to such monastic practices as are detailed in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, as Schopen himself argues.xi The Abhidhamma texts themselves are sophisticated literary works that are in turn based on the material found in the early Suttas. So the early Sutta material – not necessarily the exact collections in the form we have them today, but the main doctrinal material – must be several philosophical generations before the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Again, this conclusion, not ‘assumption’, was one of the classical reasons for assigning a relatively early date to the Nikāyas/Ᾱgamas, and nothing Schopen says really affects this.

Schopen tries to show that the forest monastic life was little different from settled monastic life in general. He does this by quoting a passage from the Vinaya that describes the lovely, luxurious forest dwelling of a certain Venerable Udāyin, where many people would go to visit him. Schopen says that this is apparently how the compilers of the Pali Vinaya saw the forest life.xii Incredibly, he makes no mention of the fact, known to every Grade 1 Vinaya student, that Udāyin is the archetypal ‘bad monk’, whose appalling behaviour prompted the formulation of many Vinaya rules. On this occasion, Udāyin gropes and sexually harasses a woman who comes to visit him, prompting the laying down of yet another rule on his behalf. This part of the story, however, is discreetly omitted by Schopen as he tries to depict Udāyin as a regular forest monk.

While it is obvious that the cult of relics and so on played a large part in Buddhist practice from the Middle Period, Schopen wants to discredit the received opinion that the early texts, and hence early Buddhism, do not include the relic cult. He ends up clutching at some embarrassingly flimsy straws.

For example, he points to a passage in the Satipaṭṭhāna-saṁyutta where the novice Cunda, after the passing away of Venerable Sāriputta, takes his bowl and robes and goes to tell Venerable Ᾱnanda.xiii Schopen says that the PTS edition (which I do not have) has a variant reading from a Burmese edition that includes the phrase dhātuparibhāvana.xiv Schopen admits that the meaning is obscure, but it ‘almost certainly contains a reference to relics’. This is dubious, for dhātu rarely if ever means ‘relic’ in this strata of literature. The VRI CD that I am using does not have dhātuparibhāvana, so it seems that this reading does not represent the mainstream Burmese tradition. Thus far Schopen’s argument is flimsy, but not necessarily wrong. But then he goes on to say that the commentary appears to have a reference to relics, since it includes the term dhātuparissāvaṇa. Parissāvaṇa means ‘water strainer’, and dhātu here means ‘relics’, though the compound ‘relics-&-water strainer’ does seem a little odd.

Anyway, the matter is clarified by the very next sentence of the commentary, which is ignored by Schopen. This says: ‘But in the text (pāḷī) it just says “Here are his bowl and robes”.’ In other words, the commentary explicitly states that the original text did not mention anything other than the bowl and robes. Thus it seems almost certain that paribhāvana was not in the original text; it was probably read back into the text by garbling the commentary (by a monk whose reading rivals Schopen in carelessness).

Schopen does not refer to the Chinese parallel, which is very close to the Pali, and which similarly mentions just the bowl and robes. He says that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya version of the incident does refer to relics, although he admits that the phrase is not a cognate of either of the Pali terns with dhātu in them. This makes it seem like an independent later development, not a common inheritance.

Schopen is right on the mark when he says that ‘this will require further study to sort out’. I hope it has now been sorted out. Rather than being ‘virtually certain’ that the Pali here has suffered loss – or as Schopen insinuates, deliberate suppression – it is absolutely certain the Pali and the Chinese and the Theravāda commentary all agree that the original account of Sāriputta’s death does not mention relics. Much later the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya and perhaps the Pali commentaries added the mention of relics. Thus this context, as with many others, suggests that the Mulasarvāstivādin Vinaya has more in common with the Theravādin commentaries than with the canon.

Schopen’s work offers us further lessons in ‘irony’ in the discussion of the term paribhāvita.xv He shows that several inscriptions and late textual sources describe the relics of the Buddha as being ‘infused’ or ‘permeated’ (paribhāvita) with such qualities as ethics, samadhi, understanding, and release. This suggests a quasi-magical conception of relics in this period. Schopen discusses the term in some detail and offers several references from the Pali canon showing a naturalistic usage of the term, for example a chicken sitting on eggs and ‘imbuing’ them with warmth. But, incredibly, he avoids all mention of the most well known occurrence of the term: the frequently repeated statement of the Buddha in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta:

‘Samadhi imbued with ethics is of great fruit, great benefit; understanding imbued with samadhi is of great fruit, great benefit; the mind imbued with understanding is rightly released from defilements.’xvi

Not only does the term paribhāvita appear repeatedly, but it does so specifically describing a list of dhammas similar or identical with those repeatedly mentioned in the inscriptions quoted by Schopen.

The implications of this are slightly worrying. Schopen has built a successful career largely on his pioneering research into the nature of the cults of the stupa and relics in Indian Buddhism. The prime canonical reference for these practices is the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, which describes the distribution of the Buddha’s relics. One of the most famous and prominent passages in this text repeatedly uses the term paribhāvita in connection with ethics, samadhi, understanding, and release. Schopen discusses at length the use of paribhāvita in inscriptions to describe relics that are imbued with ethics, samadhi, understanding, and release. He gives several references to unrelated uses of the term in the Pali canon, but avoids all mention of the usage in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta.

What is going on? Has Schopen not even read the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, the main source text in his own special field? Or might we conspiratorially wonder whether Schopen has deliberately suppressed the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta reference (just as Schopen alleges the redactors of the Pali canon suppressed mention of relics and stupas)?

Once the connection with the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta is noticed, it is obvious that the inscriptions are, in fact, quoting from or referring to this specific text. Note that the passage on ethics, samadhi, understanding, and release in itself has no connection with the relic cult. If it existed as an isolated fragment or in another context there would be no reason to associate this passage with relics. Only when taken as part of the overall narrative of the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta would it be possible to form an association between the passage and the Buddha’s relics.

To be sure, the implications of the usage in the inscriptions is radically different from that in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta. In the discourse it describes spiritual qualities to be developed by a living person, whereas in the inscriptions it seems to mean the magical infusion of relics with mystic power. This obviously suggests that the earlier, rational, psychological teaching has been altered – dare I say ‘corrupted’? – by magical conceptions. This is a straightforward reading from the evidence, not an imposition of ‘protestant presuppositions’. Of course, this conclusion would be impalatable to Schopen, because it would suggest, firstly, that the discourses, or at least the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, were actually known to a variety of Indian Buddhists and influenced their beliefs; and secondly that the picture he paints of the Middle Period is representative of Buddhism in its decadent, materialistic phase, rather than the psychological spirituality of the early teachings.

Schopen’s key inscriptional and textual sources for this quasi-magical use of paribhāvita are dated to around the first century of the Common Era. By this time, the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta must have been composed, and already be well-known and influential. This must have happened long enough for some of the central messages to be radically reinterpreted, and for these reinterpretations to have gained wide currency. The Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta evidences later elaboration, and, despite the fact that several sectarian versions are known, most scholars do not place it among the earliest strata of the Suttas. So if the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta was in existence significantly before the Middle Period, many other discourses must be even earlier. So we must be grateful to Schopen for, yet again, inadvertently offering us another proof of the existence of the early Suttas well before the Middle Period.

Schopen’s failure to notice this stems from his wilful enslavement to his own methodological presuppositions. He has a religious faith in ‘hard facts’, things that ‘actually’ exist in stone and bone. As normal, when a particular means of knowledge is given absolute priority in this way, it leads to philosophical distortions and a blindness to the broader perspective. Schopen castigates those who would render archaeological evidence subject to texts, since archaeological evidence can be located in place and time, and represents what was said by ‘actual’ people (as if those who wrote the texts were not ‘actual’ people).

One of his pervasive unexamined assumptions is the reliability of archaeological evidence. I am no expert, but it does seem to me that archaeologists, like those in any field of science, are engaged in pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, and to do so must rely on sometimes tenuous inferences. Schopen remarks several times that the sites he is referring to have not been fully excavated, or were poorly reported, or that there is uncertainty as to dating. There is no reason why the inferences derived from such methods are more reliable than those derived from textual sources.

Just one example will suffice here. Schopen quotes an inscription that refers to the setting up of an image of the ‘Blessed Lord, the Buddha amitābha’ (bhagavato buddha amitābhasya).xvii He says that this is the only inscriptional reference to Amitabha in India, and constitutes one of the few ‘hard facts’ we know about his cult in India.

The inscription is interesting, and it is useful that Schopen brought it to light. But what does it mean? The inscription says an image was set up by a certain Nāgarakṣita or Sāmrakṣita, who wishes that ‘by this skilful root may all beings attain unexcelled knowledge’. Such references to ‘all beings’ and ‘unexcelled knowledge’ are typical of Mahāyānist inscriptions; but the present inscription is very early, apparently 200 years prior to the widespread appearance of Mahāyānist inscriptions.

Schopen assumes that amitābha refers to the Buddha of that name in the well-known Sūtras so popular in China. Thus, as usual, he is unable to say anything meaningful about the inscription without the context provided by the texts.

His assumption is reasonable, but is not necessarily true. ‘Amitabha’ means ‘infinite light’, and is virtually identical with a word used in the Pali tradition to describe an order of deities: appamāṇābhā devā, the ‘deities of measureless light’. It is possible that amitābha was used of certain deities, and from there became an epithet of the historical Buddha, and only later the human and divine elements were fused into ‘Amitabha Buddha’. In other words, the inscription might not be a reference to ‘the’ Amitabha, but might simply be a descriptive epithet of Śakyamuni, representing a stage in the development towards Mahāyāna ideas.

I am not arguing that this is in fact the case, but am merely pointing out that, in the absence of context, it is impossible to know which interpretation is correct. Any meaningful statement on the matter must be based on an inference, on what we think is the more reasonable interpretation, not on the ‘hard facts’.

I beg leave here to give an example from my own experience. Once I was staying at a forest monastery where the practice was to inter the cremated remains of the monastery supporters in the monastery wall. A hole was made in the wall, and with a simple ceremony, the ashes were placed in and covered with a brass plaque. Someone, perhaps an archaeologist of Schopenesque bent, might come at some time later and notice a peculiar feature of the plaques. In a certain section, that closest to the entrance and dated earliest, the plaques say ‘Rest in Peace’, a typically Christian saying. The later plaques, however, say ‘May she attain Nibbana’, which is obviously Buddhist. What is going on? Did the monastery change from Christian to Buddhist? Is this evidence of an obscure sect of antipodean ‘Buddho-Christians’? Might we suspect darkling intrigue, a hidden tussle for power between two opposed groups of monks, vying for the funds from the different religious communities?

Happily, I was there at the time, and can answer ‘none of the above’. These plaques were ordered from a shop whose normal business, this being in a predominately Christian country, was to make plaques for Christian burials. So they came with a typically Christian burial slogan. The monks simply didn’t give the matter any thought, until it was pointed out that a Buddhist saying would be more appropriate, and so one was invented. That’s all there was to it.

Incidentally, we did not really believe that saying ‘May she attain Nibbana’ on the burial plaque would really help the lady concerned to attain Nibbana; it just seemed like a nice sentiment.

Now compare this concrete, dateable, placeable, ‘actual’ evidence with, say, some of my own essays that are available on the Net. They have no date, no place, no concrete existence at all. Yet I regard them as a more reliable and accurate guide to my beliefs and practices than those messages on the plaques at the monastery where I stayed.

Schopen dismisses the idea that shared passages in a text are evidence of early, pre-sectarian material. He prefers the hypothesis that shared material is evidence for later sharing, levelling and standardizing of material. Thus he apparently believes that when the Buddhist monastics lived in close proximity in the Ganges valley, speaking a common language, and regarding each other as being all of one community, they developed different diverging scriptures, but when they were spread widely over ‘greater India’, speaking different languages, and regarding each other as belonging to different communities, they ‘levelled’ and ‘standardized’ their scriptures. This is not inherently plausible, or even vaguely rational. He has no real evidence for this from the Indic context, and so attempts to justify it with reference to Christian history; but the Bible is accepted with slight variations as canonical by all Christians, whereas the writings of later theologians and teachers are accepted only by certain denominations and are rejected by others.

It is as if we were to come across people living in two neighbouring villages, each speaking a slightly different dialect, with customs, beliefs, lifestyle, and physical appearance that were similar, and a shared myth that asserted that they sprang from the same origins. Schopen would point out that there is no ‘hard evidence’ that they ‘actually’ share a common ancestry. The ‘actual’ situation is that there are two different villages, with divergent languages, beliefs and so on. Any ‘assumption’ that the observable similarities derive from a common ancestry is sheer speculation. After all, there is plenty of evidence that cultures tend to homogenize, to move away from diversity towards similarity. The only reasonable explanation would seem to be that here we have two different peoples, and the similarities in their cultures and physical appearance is evidence of cultural interchange and intermarriage between two originally disparate communities. This description might sound like a caricature of Schopen’s ideas, but I honestly believe it is not.

One of Schopen’s main arguments in favour of his ‘later borrowing’ thesis is the story of the stupa for Kassapa Buddha at Toyika. Wynne has shown that this argument is deeply flawed. Schopen compares various versions of the same story, but conveniently confines to a footnote the fact that, while the other versions occur in the Vinayas, the Theravāda version is found in the Dhammapāda commentary. This turns out to be yet another piece of evidence that the Theravāda tended to close their canon early, placing later material in their commentaries.

Not only is this a fatal error in one of Schopen’s key arguments, but it is, as Wynne points out, a misrepresentation of the methods of the ‘higher criticism’ that Schopen is so dismissive of. Normally scholars will take the congruence of the canonical, not the commentarial, literature as evidence of pre-sectarian remnants.

This is not the only place that Schopen misrepresents his opponents. He asserts, for example, that the ‘cardinal tenet of this criticism states, in effect, that if all known sectarian versions of a text or passage agree, that text or passage must be very old; that is, it must come from a presectarian stage of the tradition.’xviii The repeated use of ‘must’ is highly misleading. The sharing of material is only one of many independent criteria that are regularly employed to support and check each other. I do not know of any scholar who would make the blanket assertion that shared material ‘must’ be earlier. It is no more than a reasonable hypothesis that forms a basis for further research.

In addition, this description is by no means the ‘cardinal tenet’ of textual criticism. In fact, the foundations for modern Indology were laid by 19th century scholars such as T. W. Rhys-Davids and Hermann Oldenburg. At that time there was almost no knowledge of Chinese or Sanskrit texts, and so the comparative method of comparative not used at all. Rather, those scholars relied on linguistics, the internal evidence of the Pali texts, broader knowledge of Indian history, and archaeology.

Compared with the situation in Bible studies, the quantity of Buddhist literature is so vast, the subject matter so obscure, and the amount of serious research so small, that it is premature to discard any methodology. While the early scholars may not have given due weight to the archaeological evidence, they must be forgiven, in consideration of the sheer time and effort it takes to learn the Buddhist languages and read the texts. They have at least given us a reasonably coherent and satisfying working model of Indian Buddhism. If we were to accept Schopen in his more radical moods we would be rendered incapable of saying anything about the Buddha or his teachings, and would be left with no idea as to why there were, in the later periods, such widely spread religious schools claiming inspiration from a common Teacher, sharing a similar lifestyle, and borrowing wholesale each other’s scriptures, at the same time as vigorously arguing with each other over what the scriptures mean.


i Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, pp. 419-426.

ii Schopen, Buddhist Monks and Business Matters, University of Hawai’i Press, 2004, pg. 20.

iii See David M. Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, pg. 12.

iv Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg 399.

v Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 143.

vi Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 94.

viiThe Chinese canon contains a Sri Lankan Vinaya commentary that Buddhaghosa may have had before him. If so, this would allow a much more accurate assessment of the kinds of changes he introduced.

viii Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 76.

ix Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 77.

x Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 75.

xi Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 95.

xii Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 93.

xiii SN 47.13/SA 638.

xiv Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, University of Hawai’i Press, 1997, pg. 203, note 111.

xv Schopen, Bones, University of Hawai’i Press, 1997, pg.126-128.

xvi E.g. DN 16.1.12, 1.14, 1.18, 2.4, etc. The passage occurs with similar frequency in the Skt.

xvii Schopen, Bones, pg. 39.

xviii Schopen, Bones, pg.27.

 

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?