Bishop Spong’s manifesto

I’ve been a fan of John Shelby Spong for a long time. I can still remember the book my mum sent me when I was in Thailand, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born. When i offered it for the library at Wat Nanachat, I remember feeling hurt when some of the monks laughed, as if I dared to suggest they had anything to learn from a Christian. Well, I’ve learned a lot from John Spong, not least being: ‘Religion will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy.’

Now he’s got a new manifesto. It echoes a feeling I’ve had for a long time now. For many years I’ve given up dogfighting with monks over nuns. I just do my thing, and make my research and studies available for anyone who is interested. This last little while I have felt called in to defend my teacher, in accordance with the Vinaya, when he was abandoned by his friends. These words have not, in the main, been intended for the fundamentalists – the Walters – but for those out there, insulated from Sangha realities and confused by this turn of events. Now that we know where we stand, i hope to return to a more normal life.

But don’t despair. ‘Normal’ is a relative term…


9 thoughts on “Bishop Spong’s manifesto

  1. What a wonderful person, this Bishop – and a great manifesto. Thanks for putting it up! I’ve taken points of interest and posted it for discussion/brainstorming on the other relevant site, ie., the facebook site dedicated to this discussion.

    I really appreciate the last few entries, Quarreling at Kosambi, Where Do We Go From Here etc – they’ve been very helpful and informative, especially the reminder: “We are complicit, because we really don’t want to bother. This is one of the keys, and something I want everyone reading this to carefully reflect on… wouldn’t we prefer to … hand over our trust to those who we believe deserve it?”

    Religious ‘responsibility’, rather than ‘authority’, is what we should cultivate in the spiritual life. And being honest (as Spong and yourself have done) is always, in the end, the best place to come from and the best way to engage in life, for everyone – and a great encouragement:

    “Justice postponed is justice denied. That can be a resting place no longer for anyone.”

    “We will and we must learn that equality … is not something that should ever be submitted to a referendum.”

    And weren’t the Sakyans a Republic, meaning that they had some system of governing that was somewhat democratic … even before the Greeks came around to it? And didn’t the Buddha’s teachings, in many ways, reflect that system of thinking?

    This turn of events has stirred and deepened public interest, and reflecting on what’s happened in its wake, that’s been VERY important. You’ve given us the inside view of things, information and guidelines from Dhamma and Vinaya, and the inspiration to see the larger implications of what is happening, as well as the inner-workings that it reveals about ourselves. Thank you for the guidance. I hope that as a community we can continue to support this effort towards a better understanding AND PRACTICE of the Dhamma and Vinaya intelligently, responsibly, compassionately, and by that may you be able to return to a “relatively” more “normal” life.

  2. Thanks, Ajahn, for keeping the information flowing, as clearly and cogently as you have. A true gift, given the untidy and sometimes confusing chaos of the e-buzz that has been generated by the events in Perth. May you now get a bit of rest, and may your routine begin to return to some semblance of normalcy! Sending grateful metta!

  3. Many of the comments made on this blog have been highly critical of the monks of the Ajahn Cha tradition. Sometimes the language has seemed to me, as a Thai Buddhist, harsh, self righteous and arrogant. I can’t help but feel that Ven. Sujato’s tone is partly to blame. Here he refers to monks at Wat Pa Nanachat ‘sniggering’ at him out of their complacent belief that there was nothing possible to be learnt from other traditions. Was this all the monks, a few, one? Why the need for this cheap shot? Some years ago while visiting Wat Pa Nanachat I saw that their library had quite a number of books from other religions traditions. Talking to monks there I found a variety of views on almost every issue we discussed.

    • Dear Siamdham,

      You are quite right, there are a variety of views in the library at Nanachat, and among the monks, too. But that story was a straightforward retelling of an event. It was quite hurtful for me, as i offered the book in good spirit, and i felt it was very impolite for monks to mock those of another religious tradition like that, without any knowledge of what it was they were mocking. It was not meant to be a condemnation of those monks, but symptomatic of a tendency, a very real tendency which has been growing these past several years.

      I take your criticism in good spirit, and have reworded the post – please let me know if you feel this is an improvement.

      Please remember that i have not told anyone of this, or countless other events, for many years. I have no interest in criticizing Wat Nanachat or WPP just for the sake of it, and if you look at my talks and writings over the past several years, you will not find anything critical. But now we are in a time of change, and many people still nurse an unrealistic idea of the monks as pure, holy beings who always operate out of a profound sense of the Dhamma. This is untrue, for myself just as for any other group of monks. Since that time at Nanachat I have observed a worrying drift towards fundamentalism in the Western Sangha, a drift that mirrors trends in the global religious sphere. Opposition to bhikkhunis does not occur in a vacuum.

      You are not the first, nor the last, to criticize the tone of my writing. I in no way excuse myself: I am just trying to be real. I am disillusioned with the manner of dialogue among monastics I have experienced in the past, and am trying to find a better way. No doubt I make many mistakes, and i truly appreciate those who point these out to me. I keep trying, and I can only ask that you, and others, have enough patience and forbearance for me to keep on admonishing me when I need it.

  4. Bhante Sujato

    Thank you for your rewording of the post. I believe that prejudice may be produced more effectively by a steady drip drip of disparaging epithets and adjectives as by specific criticisms (which are more obvious and more easily put to the test)It still seems to me that you have on a number of occasions used emotionally toned words that unecessarily provoke negative emotions in readers with less than perfect mindfulness (all of us!). I respect your sincerity and passion but do not feel that they form sufficient cause to abandon some of the more refined aspects of right speech which I understand to be enshrined in the Vinaya.

  5. The epithet “Australian Forest Tradition” has now appeared a few times here and elsewhere. It seems so apt; the name carries a lot of background cultural meaning, one part of which is the ability to be fearlessly and truthfully outspoken–to point out the ‘elephant in the sitting room’ that everyone else is so tactfully ignoring. This is an incredible blast of fresh air…I for one have grown weary of posing, weary of silence, and weary of the stonewalling.

    So yes, Siamdham, absolutely! Let us not forget right speech. This is absolutely essential. But sometimes wrong speech is silence, and right speech means speaking out.

  6. Rapt bystander

    But here we go again. Are you not presenting subjective interpretations: ‘posing’ and ‘stonewalling’, as neutral facts? How do you know the intentions of the people you are referring to?

  7. Dear Ajahn Sujato,

    I LOVED reading Bishop Spong’s manifesto. Ta very much for the link.

    I noticed all the comments on that blog were supportive of it but some pointed out that closing off all communication with the other side might not always be the best option…especially as some on the ‘other side’ might change their minds. I know I’ve changed my mind about several things after reading a lot of the comments here and elsewhere. Has been most educational.


    • Dear Kanchana,

      Re closing off communcation and the ‘other side’: of course things are a lot more complex than that. The monks who have either opposed or at least not supported bhikkhuni ordination are diverse, have many different perspectives, and many of them are reasonable and kind people who have valuable things to offer.

      But it’s also important to realize that not all of them are like that. Some – a minority, but an influential one – are of that extremist and unreasonable form of religiosity that is best called ‘fundamentalism’. And it is these with whom, in my opinion, there is simply no point in having a reasoned discussion with.

      I would really love to be wrong, and have asked this question many times, of senior monastics, people of different faiths, psychologists, and others: how do you talk with fundamentalists? No-one has been able to give me an answer. The only practical response to fundamentalism, it seems, is to bypass them by working with and strengthening the voices of moderation.

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