The Quarrel at Kosambi

There’s been some discussion among the lay followers as to how best respond to WPP’s expulsion of Ajahn Brahm, and their failure to recognize or support women’s renunciate aspirations. A petition has been raised, and some have called for a boycott of monasteries that oppose bhikkhuni ordination.

I’d like to inform this debate by reference to a comparable situation that occured in the famous crisis at Kosambi. The events are told in the tenth chapter of the Pali Vinaya Khandhakas. Here I’ll just give a summary.

A serious split developed among the monks at Kosambi. Originally precipitated by a trivial dispute – whether it was allowable to leave water in the dipper in the bathroom – it rapidly escalated, hinting at underlying personal tensions. The Buddha attempted to resolve the dispute, but failed and left to go on retreat. Eventually, the lay people got sick of the monks arguing. They refused to pay respects to the monks and would not offer them any alms. Only when this happened did the monks decide to solve the problem. They left Kosambi and went to see the Buddha at Savatthi.

When they arrived, Ven Sariputta and other senior monks asked the Buddha how they should act. He said, ‘You should stand fast by the Dhamma.’ (yathā dhammo tathā tiṭṭhāhi). When Sariputta asked what the Dhamma was, the Buddha responded with ’18 points’.

A teacher of non-Dhamma is one who:

teaches non-Dhamma as Dhamma and vice versa;
teaches non-Vinaya as Vinaya and vice versa;
teaches what was not spoken by the Buddha as being spoken by the Buddha, and vice versa;
teaches what was not practiced by the Buddha as being practiced by the Buddha, and vice versa;
teaches what was not laid down as a Vinaya rule by the Buddha as if it were laid down by the Buddha, and vice versa;
teaches what is no offence as an offence, and vice versa;
teaches a slight offence as a serious offence, and vice versa;
teaches a resolvable offence as unresolvable, and vice versa;
teaches a corrupt offence as not corrupt, and vice versa.

A teacher of Dhamma teaches the opposite of all these.

Then Mahapajapati came to the Buddha and asked him how the bhikkhunis should act regarding the divisive monks. The Buddha said she should listen to Dhamma from both sides, and follow the views of those monks who speak Dhamma. The duties that the bhikkhunis are to expect from the bhikkhus (such as assisting in ordinations) should be sought from those who are speakers of Dhamma.

Then Anathapindika and Visakha, the lay supporters, came to see the Buddha with the same question. He said, ‘You should give offerings to both sides, and listen to Dhamma from both sides, but you should follow the views of the monks who are speakers of Dhamma.’

The Buddha also said to Sariputta that separate lodgings should be assigned for the quarreling monks, and that requisites should be distributed equally. In other words, there is to be no punitive measures among the Sangha in terms of lodgings or material gains.

After this, the quarreling monks realized their mistake, confessed it, and the matter was resolved.

There are a number of interesting features of this little story. First of all, the Buddha does not say, ‘Be nice to everyone and try to conciliate both sides.’ He says the monks should stick by the Dhamma. And the Dhamma is not merely a general sense of being harmonious, but specifically the Buddha’s teachings and practices.

Elsewhere in the Vinaya, the course that goes against the Dhamma and Vinaya is said to be the ‘Dark Side’. I kid you not, the Pali is kaṇhapakkha.

It is remarkable how much trust the Buddha had in human nature. He doesn’t tell people, ‘This lot are right and these are wrong.’ He gives the guidelines, and asks them to make their own judgments. There’s no room here for ‘bad faith’, for pretending that there is something virtuous about blindly following traditions.

It’s also interesting to note the role of the lay people. It is only their boycott that forces the monks to do anything. Even the Buddha couldn’t wield this kind of power! That boycott is something the Buddha does not comment on (at least in this version). He does not praise it, but he certainly does not criticize it.

Later, when the lay people ask for his advice, he recommends that they give offerings to both sides. But notice that when he gives that advice, the situation has already changed. The two sides have decided they need to resolve the problem, and even though it is not over yet, they have traveled to Savatthi to seek a resolution. The boycott of the Kosambi laypeople had already done its job. In this situation, there is no point to further pursuing the boycott.

For the lay people who wish to help create change in the Sangha, heed this lesson! If the Sangha is sincere, acknowledges the problem, and is actively seeking to redress it, your support is required – with discernment.

It is up to you to decide whether this applies in our situation. Consider carefully the 18 points, and if you aren’t confident to make up your mind with this framework, ask and inquire. Even Sariputta asked the Buddha, ‘What is the Dhamma here?’

If you find that there is a denial of the problem, a refusal to engage, a persistence in the same behaviours that caused the problem in the first place, then it is irrational to think that conciliation will lead to any improvement. In such cases, please remember that, despite everything that the Sangha hierarchy might suggest, it is you who have the power. Where the Buddha failed, you can succeed.

13 thoughts on “The Quarrel at Kosambi

  1. Thank you Bhante Sujato for this teaching from the Vinaya. It is a reminder to us lay practitioners that we have a responsibility to protect the Dhamma as well. If we do not hold erring monastics accountable, we collude and strengthen their unskillful behavior. I support a boycott of monasteries that continue to oppose bhikkhuni ordination. I do so out of love and compassion. As a lay person, I have only cursory knowledge of the Vinaya. One of the things I have come to understand, though, in reading the Patimokkha is that if we see someone doing something wrong and we do not bring this to their attention, then we share culpability if they continue to act in harmful ways. Susan Pembroke

  2. Bhante

    An excellent and rational summary for lay people and its very timely as debate ebbs and flows about whether Ajahn Brahm and yourself did the “right” thing

    As pointed out in all of Buddhas teachings Dhamma is the right way and the only way, and in my humble opinion there has been no reference to Dhamma from Wat Pah Pong and others, only deference to Mahatherasamakom rules

    With Metta

  3. Sadhu. Sadhu. Sadhu.

    The Buddha’s advice in Quarrel at Kosambi is now a life-long practice path for me, I thinks.

    Me being just one normal, run-o-the-mill, Western raised, female lay Buddhist — someone actively seeking ways to enhance and deepen my relationship to dhamma …

    I was deeply challenged to find out my podcast dhamma heroes were, by their own actions, holding a glass ceiling over the aspirations of women in my tradition to fully ordain.

    My first reaction was that these Bhikkhus were not only denying the aspirations of any women in this traditions, but they were specifically denying my own aspirations to practice in an enlightened tradition created by Buddha. They were also disavowing my own very fledgling aspiration to one day practice as a monastic as they are now practicing.

    My second reaction was to deny them my support … my ears. Very, very sadly, they are now gone from my podcast list.

    But enough about me …

    How dare these Bhikkhus deny me and the world (of today and tomorrow) access to women who have the skill and aspiration to practise at the same level as they?

    How dare they decide, by omitting some, that women are not now and not to be leaders in this dhamma tradition? Especially in these times.

    So, what to do …

    I developed a petition: — in conjunction with some amazing and inspiring people who’ve been affected by or noticed problematic gender issues in Western monasteries.

    This has been an challenging, distressing, confusing few weeks for me. My understanding of the tradition I practice in has been turned on it’s head. I’m now wiser, but have much learning to do.

    So, maybe this does deepen my practice.

    Understanding how to work and practice with my own responses and others responses to this situation — the glass ceiling of non-ordination for women — is something I’ll be working with for a long time … hopefully always with integrity, compassion, and all that other dhamma stuff.

    • Dear Sylvester,

      The Paleilai pachyderm is unknown to me, so I don’t know if that’s a good thing! Reassuringly, google is equally unaware of this fascinating beast.

    • Dear Bhante

      Horrors! How could the Thai Classical monastic education have failed to equip you with the Dhammapada Attakatha (to verses 328 to 330) story of what happened after the Buddha left the Kosambi monks and retired to the Paleilai forest? Elephant and monkey? Wednesday evening births? It must be coming back by now….?

      We had better insist the Thai Sangha force-feed the new monks with more legends, including the legendary bhikkhuni ban. We can’t have these monks being corrupted by Suttas and Vinaya, when there’s tradition to better serve their needs.

  4. Dear Ajahn,

    The forest Sylvester mentioned is the name of the forest where the Buddha had his retreat after leaving the quarrelling monks. The story is here:

    I hope that all concerned will eventually realise what is essential in Buddhism.

    May Ajahn Braham and Ajahn Sujato and all the new Bhikkhuni be well and happy.

    Yours in dhamma,

    P.S. Is it suitable for a layperson to use this closing “Yours in dhamma”?

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