Here is the official statement issued by the Ajahns who attended the WAM, held from 7-9 December 2009. I don’t have a final list of those who attended.
I won’t go into a detailed analysis, as there is little new here. Essentially, the Ajahns don’t give any ground, but are solely concerned to justify their positions. There is a very brief acknowledgement of the letters and petitions that were delivered, but no serious attempt to address the issues and concerns.
I would like to just comment on one almost by-the-by statement in the paper.
There was a sense of frustration that we had not as yet been able to adequately transmit our understanding of the various issues raised, accompanied by an acknowledgment that it was hard to see how it could have been any other way. Our commitment to the principle of consultation and consensus meant that we had no choice but to delay crafting a coherent response until we could come together as a group and discuss the matter face to face.
On one level, this is fair enough: as a group, they need to formulate a group response, and this takes time. But it is also disingenuous, because they are also individuals who speak ‘from the heart’ – as the standard Forest Tradition approach emphasizes – on all kinds of crucial issues. While a ‘corporate’ response is needed, this does not hinder making personal statements – at least, not in other issues.
I have a decidedly ambivalent attitude when conflict is said to be caused by ‘communication’ – made famous in such stories as Ajahn Brahm’s ‘chicken and duck’. Sometimes, it is just the communications that is at fault, and it goes without saying that we can and should all strive to improve.
Yet my experience teaches me that, time and time again, the issue is not the manner of communications, it is the substance that causes the real problems. One test that I use is this. Look at the communications, at those who are doing the communicating, and see what real world issues there are. Is it, for example, a problem of language and translation? Or is it that people are too timid to articulate their needs? Or is it that no-one is listening? Or that there are no adequate channels or means of communication?
When I do that in our current situation, it strikes me that none of these things are really a problem, except for communications between the Thai Sangha and the rest of the world. This is a genuine, serious problem, and one which I think needs a lot of effort to overcome. But with the Western monks, they are intelligent, articulate men; they have access to any kinds of technology they need; and they have a ready-made audience of people who are bending their ears, striving to hear everything they say. People sit in absolute silence, soaking up every nuance of the words that emerge in a Dhamma talk; and there is an eager yearning to hear what they have to say on this issue, which we have seen all over the world. Yet they still feel that they cannot communicate properly, and this hurts.
If being misunderstood is painful – which it is – then what of those who are systematically silenced? What of those, especially women, whose voices have never been listened to properly in the history of Buddhism? How are the marginal, the powerless, to feel, when thousands of voices are dismissed in a few lines?
I have noticed a pattern of communication, most obviously from the English Sangha, where the concern for ‘form’ or ‘tone’ becomes not merely a part of the discussion, but completely displaces any response to the content.
For example, many years ago, Ajahn Brahm wrote a piece on dependent origination, where he critiques the so-called ‘one lifetime interpretation’. The critique was directed at Ven Payutto’s book on the topic, although his ideas are shared with many in the Western Sangha. Obviously, in a subtle matter such as this, it is natural that there be a variety of opinions, which should be discussed in the Sangha. Ajahn Brahm raised a number of important, substantive problems with the ‘one lifetime interpretation’. But these were practically ignored, as response focused on what was perceived as Ajahn Brahm’s ‘tone’. Some aspects of the ‘tone’ included, for example, that he quoted from the Pali texts in ALL CAPS, which was seen as like shouting. Fair enough, it’s a good stylistic point; but Ajahn Brahm did it that way because they didn’t have a computer so it was all on a manual typewriter and that was the only convenient way to distinguish the Pali and the English. A minor stylistic nuance, and an understandable part of the debate. But after a flurry of discussion around these issues, it just went away, and monks continued to teach one-life dependent origination while simply ignoring the serious doctrinal problems this raises. The situation remains, and in this, as in very many other central doctrinal matters, the Ajahn Chah Sangha tolerates a wide diversity of incompatible views. The fact that one-life dependent origination is highly controversial and clearly contradicts the Theravada position (and also the interpretation of other schools) does not seem to be a problem, even though theoretically this could make the difference as to whether it is possible to be enlightened or not.
This is just one example, but for me it has become a red flag. Whenever i see discussion diverted to focus of the manner of communication, I ask myself whether there are genuine communications problems; if I can’t see them, I suspect that what is really happening is avoidance. When a superficial concept of ‘harmony’ is stressed above all others I look to the substance of the debate. When there is an excessive insistence on ‘harmony’, we lose the capacity to tolerate and dialogue with difference.
I don’t believe that the widespread opposition to the WPP’s actions, and the call for a serious reform of the role of women in the Sangha, has anything to do with a communications problem. I think we understand the Ajahns perfectly well. We understand that the tradition is important to them; we understand that they feel hurt that they weren’t consulted; we understand that they value harmony. Better communications will do nothing to change this.
The problem is not one of communications, especially from the Ajahns’ side. The problem is one of values. I believe that inequality and discrimination are fundamentally wrong. They contradict the Dhamma, they cause harm, and they go against the noblest values that are widely accepted in the world. Preservation of a tradition is, as a rule, a good thing, but it can never outweigh such fundamental values. Where a tradition contradicts such ethical values, it should be reformed. This is the ongoing nature of all traditions anyway, that they are in a constant state of transformation. such a reform should be guided by ethical principles and the genuine needs of people, not by the interests of the institutions.
The letter from the WAM imagines the Theravada tradition to be ‘like a gnarled and deeply rooted oak…’ This is a telling sense of their own self-perception. Compare this with Ajahn Chah’s famous simile: Thai Buddhism is like an old mango tree – big but bearing few, sour fruit – while Buddhism in the West was like a sapling – small, but with great potential.
Now the WAM identifies itself with the old tree. It sees long-lasting and strength comes from size, age, and thickness. But in nature, long-lasting comes from the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Each organism inherits its DNA, its genotype; but the phenotype emerges in dynamic response to its environment. Recent biology emphasizes the role of the – i forget the name for them – the widgets in the cell that ‘read’ the DNA. They go to one segment of DNA, select and copy that, and use it for its purpose.
This is just like a tradition, very literally how the Pali canon is used. Selected bits are pulled from the shelves and used for specific purposes, while the vast bulk remains there, like so-called ‘junk DNA’.
What this dynamic scenario shows is that, while the DNA is important in providing a store of potential information – the wisdom of the ages – the survival of the organism really depends on the behavior of those who read that information and put it into practice in a way that responds to the immediate needs on the environmental niche.