We’ve been told by so many people that the Sangha needs to go ahead by consensus, that we need to wait for agreement before we can do bhikkhuni ordination. What this means is by no means clear – exactly whose agreement is required? Wat Pa Pong? Thai Buddhism? International Theravada? Bhikkhu Bodhi has even said that:
Although there might not be any such thing as a unified international Theravada Sangha, it seems to me that each monk has an obligation to act in conscience as if there were such an entity; his decisions and deeds should be guided by the ideal of promoting the well-being and unity of an integral Sangha even if this Sangha is merely posited in thought.
But how does this entirely theoretical ‘Sangha’ play out in the real world? How does change actually come about? I’d like to share just a few examples of major changes that have helped to form modern Buddhism as we know it.
One of the most decisive changes in modern Thai Buddhism was the formation of the Dhammayuttika order. This came about gradually as the result of a number of reforms and innovations introduced to a tiny circle of monks led by a Prince of Thailand, Mongkut, during his time in robes. His own account of events is very interesting. He emphasizes that it was a gradual process, not a specific decision at a point in time to create a new order. His main motivation was that he believed the contemporary Thai Sangha was degenerate, and had become merely a vehicle for passing down rituals and poorly-understood customs. He wanted to revitalize the Sangha based on fresh modern ideas, which were informed by his frequent discussions with Western thinkers.
One foundation of his reform was to emphasize the authority of the Pali canon over that of contemporary teachers. Rather than simply accepting whatever was taught to him by his teachers, he studied the scriptures for himself and developed his own, often new and critical, perspectives. The innovations he introduced have become a part of the fabric of modern Thai Buddhism, their influence reaching much further than just the small circle of Dhammayuttika monks.
In emphasizing the Pali texts over tradition, Prince Mongkut was following a strong strand of thought within Buddhism itself. The early scriptures face this problem directly, and unambiguously state that one should follow the teachings of the Buddha rather than that of the teachers. This was one of the major issues at the Second Council, around 100 years after the Buddha. A group of monks proposed that following customary precedent (āciṇṇakappa) of the teachers was allowable. The finding of the Sangha was that this was sometimes allowable (if the teachers were in accord with Dhamma-Vinaya) and sometimes not. Prince Mongkut emphasized this principle, and claimed that the contemporary Thai Sangha were in fact following the doctrine of those who uncritically followed customary precedent (āciṇṇakappikavāda).
The rest of the Sangha in Thailand, before this time, consisted of many and diverse local traditions. As the idea of Dhammayuttika became more defined, the rest of the Sangha came to be treated under one umbrella, the Mahanikaya.
Part of his motivation, it seems, was his observation that the Vinaya practice of the majority Sangha was so lax that he began to doubt whether the ordination lineage could still be valid. He searched for what he believed was a pure, valid ordination from the Mon tradition in Burma, and re-ordained in that lineage, which forms the basis for the modern Dhammayuttika.
I said ‘it seems’ above, because even though I have heard this discussed among the monks, Mongkut’s own biography does not emphasize this. It is certain that he wanted to get a ‘purer’ ordination lineage, but it is not so clear that he believed the existing Thai ordinations were invalid. Perhaps he simply wanted to de-emphasize this controversial aspect in his published writings.
The point is still felt in modern practice. Some of the Dhammayuttika monks – though far from all – still treat Mahanikaya monks as if they are not really ordained. For example, Mahanikaya monks are not allowed to participate in the patimokkha recitation – instead, they often sit inside the sīmā but not within the Sangha, a curious practice that seems to be against the Vinaya. Other Dhammayuttika monks will not eat food that has been offered to a Mahanikaya monk – leading one senior Wat Pa Pong monk to remark, when a Dhammayuttika monk insisted on this practice, ‘We’re just novices (sāmaṇera) to him’.
There was, of course, no question of Mongkut even trying to seek consensus in his new ideas. He just went ahead and did it, trying to maintain harmony and keep the Sangha harmonious, but not letting this stop him from making the necessary changes. At this distance it is difficult to appreciate the stresses and conflicts that this entailed, but they were substantial.
Mongkut and those following him have been accused of imposing a scriptural orthodoxy on the diversity of Thai Buddhist forms. There is no doubt some truth to this. It was a form of ‘inner colonialism’, the modern, Westernized culture of Bangkok trying to establish a national identity through religious reform. While I believe his reforms were generally positive, and helped Thailand to survive in good shape through the colonial era, there is always a shadow to these things.
One area where the modernist thinking of Mongkut has been very controversial has been his belief that in our degenerate age, it is impossible to realize the paths and fruits of Buddhism. Rather than aiming for any transcendental goal, our practice of Buddhadhamma is in order to support mundane virtue and wisdom, to uphold the forms and texts of Buddhism. This belief, while almost unheard of in the West, is very common in modern Theravada. It became so mainstream that at one point any reference to Nibbana was removed from the Thai ordination ceremony.
The Forest Tradition
One monk who questioned this belief was Ajahn Mun. He determined to test for himself whether the truths of Buddhism could be attained in this very life. Rejecting the text-based approach of the Dhammayuttika in his day, he set out to prove through resolute striving and practice that the Dhamma could be attained in this very life. While we can imagine no response to this than admiration and a sense of awe at his accomplishments, the contemporary Thai Sangha saw things very differently.
If Ajahn Mun and other forest monks could claim to have realized the Dhamma, then immediately they put to shame the city monks, for whom such a goal was entirely irrelevant. They could, and did, question the authority of the scriptures and the received opinions of the Dhamma, based on no more than their own meditative experience.
The forest monks were rebels, living outside the system of settled, bureaucratic monks that was so essential for the State. In many places they met with fierce opposition from the local monks, not least because their dedicated, austere approach contrasted so baldly with the laxity of the city monks. A brief history of this is available from Ajahn Thanissaro, called The Customs of the Noble Ones.
It is difficult at this distance to appreciate the intensity of opposition the forest monks faced in many places. In Ubon Rajathani, the home of Ajahn Chah and the site of his monastery of Wat Pa Pong, the chief monk of the district couldn’t stand Ajahn Chah and the forest monks. When the western monks moved to start Wat Nanachat, they met with ferocious resistance from the local monks, who accused them of all sorts of things, especially with trying to destroy Thai Buddhism. By the time I arrived there, that dispute belonged in the distant past, but there was still a remnant of the conflict: a sign hung outside one of the local temples simply said, ‘We love Thai customs.’
The Vipassana School
Similar conflicts played out somewhat differently in neighbouring Burma. Like Thailand, Burma has inherited a complex mixture of localized Buddhist forms and practices. Nominally Theravadin, it is crucial to understand that in these countries before the modern era, communications and education were poor, there was little central control, and Buddhism had evolved a myriad of localized practices. Many of these have little or nothing to do with the Dhamma. Superstition, black magic, animist worship, and mystical rituals were the order of the day. These things constituted the main activities of the Buddhist monks. Even after the many reforms that have tried to overcome these things, they still remain to this day, underneath the rational text-based reforms of the Dhammayuttika, beside the contemplative approach of the meditation monks, and outside the approval of official State Buddhism.
Mainstream Burmese Buddhism emphasizes correct doctrinal understanding based on the Abhidhamma – an approach quite different to Thailand. Faced with a similar colonialist threat, and wanting to modernize Buddhism but revitalizing the most ‘rational’ aspects of the teachings, the Burmese responded by developing an Abhidhamma-based system of meditation, which they called Vipassana.
Like the radical Ajahn Mun, the Burmese developers of the Vipassana school, whose most famous exponent was Mahasi Sayadaw, rejected the then-prevalent view that Nibbana was unattainable in our degenerate age. But they differed from the Thai forest tradition in that, while the Thais emphasized that deep insight went hand in hand with deep concentration, or jhana, the Burmese Vipassana school claimed that jhana was unnecessary to realization of the Dhamma.
This controversy has continued unabated through Theravada Buddhism until the present day. During the 60s, a series of articles was published, with the Burmese and Sri Lankan Elders rebutting each others views in the strongest terms. The conflict raises a variety of central issues: the relation of text to experience, the authority of the Suttas versus the Abhidhamma, the way modern meditation schools evolve in response to specific cultural and historical developments.
In questioning the necessity for jhana, the Burmese elders were not merely positing a different approach to meditation, but were challenging one of the very factors of the eightfold path itself, Right Samadhi. The Buddha declared that disputes about Vinaya were trivial, but disputes about the path were very harmful.
Despite the radical nature of the Vipassana School, it gained widespread adherence through the Buddhist world, largely due to the energetic efforts of the Burmese teachers, especially in teaching overseas. Many of you, like myself, will have had your first serious meditation experience at a Vipassana retreat, whether Goenka or Mahasi style. With no historical context, it is difficult to appreciate what a radical break this approach was from traditional meditative practices.
The very idea of an intensive meditation retreat, which contrasts with the gradual approach emphasized in the Suttas, is a radical modern innovation. It was originally fueled by the belief that through such an intensive process it was possible for a significant percentage of meditators to realize stream-entry, the first stage of Awakening. Many monks outside the Vipassana movement reject these claims, and do not accept the authenticity of these reported Awakenings.
In the last decade or so, a strong challenge to the Vipassana orthodoxy has arisen in the form of Pa Auk Sayadaw and his very successful monastery and meditation method. Pa Auk Sayadaw rejects the central tenets of the Vipassana schools, and bases his approach on a systematic development of jhana as exponded in the Visuddhimagga.
His teachings, while emphatically in the Theravadin Abhidhamma tradition, have been controversial, and in the past, so I’ve heard, his books have been banned by the State-sponsored Sangha Council. One controversy lies in the claim that a meditator should be able to actually see the details of the ‘series of thought moments’ (cittavithī). This is an Abhidhamma construct which, according to orthodox Burmese Buddhism, can be directly seen by Buddhas and chief disciples only.
Once again, while Pa Auk’s approach can be seen as deeply conservative on the one hand, he poses a radical challenge to the spiritual authority of the Vipassana schools. If jhana really is necessary, then he implictly claims to have a deeper level of realization than Mahasi and his followers. The major international success of Pa Auk can only have deepened this challenge.
Texts: translation and composition
These reforms are, in many cases, so prevalent in international Buddhism, that they are seen as normal, and their radical nature is obscured. Another area where this is the case is in the translation of texts.
These days we have excellent English translations of many Buddhist scriptures. We might be surprised to learn that translation of scriptures into local languages is largely a modern development in Theravada. Of course, the Tibetans and Chinese translated all their scriptures long ago, but in Theravada the texts have been primarily passed down in Pali, which would be mainly learnt by the monks, and they would interpret the texts through the oral traditions. Translated texts were sporadic and partial.
The first effort to make a complete modern translation of the texts, astonishingly enough, was in England, under the guidance of T. W. Rhys Davids. Official translations into Sri Lankan and Thai have appeared (I’m not sure about Burmese). They are rarely read, and native speakers complain that the language is so rarefied that it is scarcely easier than the Pali.
So the modern practice of reading directly from the scriptures in one’s own language is a modern development. In recent years this has been greatly supported by the work of Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ajahn Thanissaro. Both of these monks have made large scale translations that are widely read in the English-speaking Dhamma world.
Not only is the very act of reading a Sutta itself an innovation, it is also important to bear in mind that both of these monks have their own personal interpretations of the Dhamma. In the past, translation and text-transmission was made by centrally organized bodies. Now, individuals can translate and analyze texts, bringing their own personal and idiosyncratic ideas to bear.
Both of these monks have what i would call a ‘critical conservatism’ with relation to the tradition: while content to pass down the traditional reading in many cases, they are not afraid to criticize or change the traditional interpretation, each in their own way.
The evolution of this can be traced in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s own works. In his translation of the Majjhima Nikaya he almost always restricted the footnotes to giving a summary of the traditional commentary, and rarely ventured to differ. His subsequent translation of the Samyutta Nikaya is far more daring and critical in his relation with the commentary. In addition, he has started to introduce the notion of comparative studies, viewing the Pali texts in the light of other early Buddhist texts, primarily in the Chinese canon. This is, so far as i am aware, without precedent in orthodox Theravada, which always views its own texts as final, original, and complete.
This emergence of individual, personal perspectives on the Dhamma is not limited to translations. In past decades we have witnessed an explosion of writings on Dhamma, which again has no precedent in the Theravadin tradition. For millenia, Theravada contended itself with composing commentaries on texts, grammars, Vinaya commentaries, Abhidhamma works, cosmologies, and the like. Nowhere do we find personal, experiential literature. Theravadins of the past, as exemplified by the great commentator Buddhaghosa, saw their task as the accurate transmission of the Dhamma, and regarded their own personal experiences as the least authority of all. The emphasis on personal experiential witness to the Dhamma is a product of Theravada’s encounter with the individualistic values of modernity.
How does reform actually happen?
These are just a few examples, chosen because of their importance for modern international Buddhism. Most students of Buddhism in the West will be unaware that these things have ever been controversial, and will be surprised to find that the form of Buddhism which has been presented to them has very recent roots.
Casting our eye back over these reforms, ask the question: Did any of these happen through consensus of the entire Sangha? Or even of one part of it? Did any of the monks (and later, laypeople) who brought these changes about do so only after having convinced everyone of their ideas? We only need to ask the question to realize how ridiculous this would be.
Not to speak of these reforms, which have created the modern Buddhism we all know, what about other reforms? When the Thai authorities decided to impose a State-based Buddhism on the regions, did they get consensus first? Assuredly not – there was great opposition, especially in the North, and especially to the idea that the State should appoint preceptors.
When the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka decided to ordain only men of the Govigama caste, did they do so with an understanding of how this would add to the greater integrity of international Theravada? Especially, did they do this in gratitude for the Thai monks who gave them the ordination lineage, knowing that caste-based ordination is entirely alien to Thailand?
This question is especially pertinent in the context of bhikkhuni ordination. Inamaluve Sumangala Nayaka Thera, the prelate of an important branch of the Asgiriya chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, took a radical step, breaking from long-standing tradition and threatening Sangha harmony by ordaining young men without regard for caste distinction. He even went so far as to ordain Tamils, breaking another long Siyam Nikaya tradition. If this was not enough, he then was instrumental in ordaining bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka. In none of these cases did he have the widespread support, let alone consensus, of the Sangha as a whole, or even his own Nikaya. In each case his moves were the opportunity for criticism and disharmony.
What about Wat Pa Pong itself? When this was established as a separate entity within the larger Mahanikaya, did Ajahn Chah and his monks have the support of the whole Mahanikaya? In deciding to treat visiting monks as if they were not regular bhikkhus – making them sit at the end of the line of bhikkhus and excluding them from the patimokkha recitation – did they act with the consensus of the bhikkhus who they were treating in this way?
Finally, what about the 1928 ban on bhikkhunis? Was this reached by a consensus approach, consulting and researching the opinions of Theravadin bhikkhus in Thailand and overseas? Certainly not: it was a ruling imposed by a centralized authority. There was then, as there has always been, a diversity of views and perspectives on female ordination in Theravada.
I am trying to think of an example of reform in modern Buddhism that meets this requirement, and I cannot think of any. If you can, please let me know. As far as my limited knowledge of the subject goes, in every case reform and adaptation of Buddhism – whether positive or negative – happens because of the acts of one person or group. They are convinced that theirs is the right way to do things, and stick by that even in the face of opposition and conflict. As the Buddha advised in the case of Sangha conflict: yathā dhammo tathā tiṭṭḥāhi – you should stand by the Dhamma.
It will be objected that the examples I have given are different from the current situation. Of course, this is quite true, and in no single case that I have mentioned parallels the current situation. But then, nothing else does either. Every historical situation is different, and must be assessed on its own terms. What I am trying to show here is that any reform takes place by going against the stream. No matter how much we might like to bring all alongside by way of reasoned persuasion, this simply does not happen in the real world for any issue of substance and complexity.
I think this is a case where sheer ontology trumps ethics. We can argue all we like about what is the ‘right’ way to bring about change. But the fact of change ignores the ethics of the thing. It is a purely evolutionary matter: who survives, survives. We can never know whether another way to bring about change would have been ‘better’.
There are those who tell us that we should pursue change through the proper channels for reform. Such channels have a decided disadvantage: they don’t exist. There is, to my knowledge, not one single major reform in Buddhism in modern times that has been accomplished through the ‘proper channels’, through acting ‘as if’ the international Theravadin Sangha were a real entity. An insistence on ‘proper channels’ would lead only to stagnation, decay, fossilization.
Such forces are so strong in Theravada already that they threaten its survival. Buddhism will not be damaged or destroyed through reform. It will die crushed under the weight of its own past. Religious reform is always messy, controversial, conflictive. But without it, Buddhism cannot survive.
We went ahead with bhikkhuni ordination in the sincere belief that without a respectful role for women, the Sangha does not have a future in any non-traditional Buddhist country. Even in traditional countries, this inequality will have a greater and greater impact on the vitality of the Sangha. In this sense, our acts were genuinely holding the best interests of the international Sangha at heart.