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.